Denial review – Rachel Weisz makes heavy weather of Holocaust courtroom drama
Despite its pedigree – with a top-notch cast and a script by David Hare – this drama about the real-life libel case involving disgraced historian David Irving never comes to life
Nigel M Smith
Monday 12 September 2016 18.42 BST
Denial is textbook Oscar bait: an autumn release recounting an inspiring real story about fighting prejudice, led by a showy performance from an Oscar winner, written by an award-winning playwright, and buffeted by a swelling, emotional score. However, patches of it are so ludicrously hammy it plays like one of those unbearably corny fake films teased at the beginning of Tropic Thunder.
Tonally, Denial starts on wobbly ground with the introduction of American academic Deborah E Lipstadt (Weisz), the woman on whose book, Denial: Holocaust History on Trial, David Hare’s script is based. Students say hello as she passes them by in the corridor, as if on Sesame Street. Weisz, usually a nuanced talent, sells her character too forcefully from the get-go; a scene where she gives an impassioned lecture at Emory university in Atlanta, where she teaches Jewish studies, is like a monologue for drama school.
Her speech is interrupted by a man who identifies himself as David Irving (Timothy Spall), a known Holocaust denier she explicitly labelled as such in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust. He challenges her, absurdly, to debate whether the Holocaust ever happened, but she refuses. “I won’t debate fact,” she says.
Fast-forward two years: Irving sues her for libel all the way from England, on the grounds that her recent book has ruined the once well-regarded military historian’s career. Flummoxed, Lipstadt meets with Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), the British solicitor famed for representing Lady Diana in her divorce case (drolly, he has a framed and signed clipping in his office to prove it). He informs her that in English libel law, the burden of proof lies with the accused. In other words: it falls on her and her legal team to prove that Holocaust did indeed take place .
The rest of Denial plays out with the headstrong Lipstadt and her band of uptight British lawyers butting heads as they battle with Irving in court, only to of course come together to reach the well known outcome.
Hare injects some compelling passages that cut deep, even if you’re familiar with the story. There’s a provocative scene where Lipstadt is pressured at a dinner in London to settle with Irving to avoid giving him a platform to spout his hate-filled nonsense. “He does these things for his glory,” she’s told. Hare makes the parallels to the media’s treatment of Donald Trump during this US election cycle ring loud and clear. Another scene that sees Lipstadt and her lawyers visit the concentration camp at Auschwitz is sensitively handled and undeniably affecting.
Much of the rest, however, is presented as a standard issue legal drama with broad stakes and zero nuance. Lipstadt is written as an impassioned mouthpiece with no internal life, and Weisz does little to humanise her, relying on a broad Queens accent to somehow define the character. It doesn’t help she’s forced to sport a red mop of a wig that’s wholly unconvincing.
The rest of the cast fares better, notably Tom Wilkinson as Lipstadt’s Scottish lawyer who makes Irving squirm in the stand. But, under the workmanlike direction of Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard), what should have been a rousing and ragingly topical crowdpleaser, instead feels more like a Lifetime movie.