Despite the great performances, this legal drama feels incredibly generic.
Denial tells the true story of Deborah Libstadt (Rachel Weisz), as she is sued for libel by “historian” and notorious Holocaust denier, David Irving (Timothy Spall), who claims that Libstadt is defaming his name. The film presents itself as a moral drama, as it questions whether a racist and anti-Semitic belief can still be openly expressed in a free society. Indeed, despite the fact that the film is very clearly a legal drama, director Mick Jackson cuts through the jargon, and instead turns the film into a character-driven piece. We focus mainly on Libstadt, and how this respected historian is not just putting her career on the line, but also the legacy of the Holocaust itself, in an attempt to discredit Irving. As multiple characters say throughout the film, it is not just Libstadt that is being put on trial, but history itself, and therefore we are not just witnessing a simple libel trial but also a historical debate.
This is where the film most succeeds, and Libstadt’s legal team (played by Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott, among others) serve as an anchor for Libstadt, ensuring that her passion for the holocaust does not risk jeopardising the case. However, this is not to say that the Holocaust isn’t properly represented, and unlike the trial itself, the film gives a voice to Holocaust survivors, as several interact with Libstadt throughout the course of the film. Jackson, therefore, continually juxtaposes the trial with the history it is representing, ensuring that despite the focus being on a libel trial, the audience don’t forget why it is so important.
The acting is similarly praiseworthy, particularly Spall’s portrayal of Irving. Spall perfectly captures the sliminess and hypocrisy of the famous Holocaust denier, who, despite his racist views, likes to present himself as the perfect gentleman. The fact that Spall has, once again, been denied significant attention at any of this year’s award ceremonies, reinforces my belief that he is one of the most underrated actors working today. However, despite the brilliance of Spall’s performance, it is probably Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal as the defence’s barrister, Richard Rampton, that is most impressive. Wilkinson is able to effectively convey Rampton’s skill at undermining Irving’s baseless conspiracies, whilst also showing the character’s conflict in having to approach the horrors of the Holocaust completely objectively, in order to mount the best defence.
It is disappointing then, that in this sea of good performances, Rachel Weisz fails to impress in the lead role. Weisz chews the scenery like it’s made of rubber, and portrays Libstadt as an eccentric character, who is completely naïve to even the most basic legal protocols. Knowing very little about the real Libstadt myself, it’s possible that Weisz’s performance is very accurate, however, it doesn’t fit well with the more sombre tone of the film, and can at times be very distracting. Indeed, this relates to the main problem of the film; it can’t decide what genre it wants to be. At times, Denial seems like a straight-laced biopic, simply showing the events of the trial as they happened, while at other times, comes across as an in-depth character study into the ways in which the trial is affecting each individual. On the odd occasion, it even seems like the film is trying to be somewhat comedic with its heavy subject matter.
Denial, therefore despite its many positives, is a bit of a mess. A beautiful mess with excellent performances, and an interesting premise, but a mess nevertheless, and whilst it may be worth a watch eventually, it’s not worth rushing out to see.
Denial (2017), directed By Mick Jackson, is distributed by Entertainment One. Certificate 12A.