Mark Reviews Movies

Denial (2016)

DENIAL (2016)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Mick Jackson

Cast: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Jack Lowden, Caren Pistorius, Alex Jennings, Harriet Walter, Mark Gatiss, John Sessions

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and brief strong language)

Running Time: 1:50

Release Date: 9/30/16 (limited); 10/7/16 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 6, 2016

For as long as the truth of the Holocaust has been known, there have been people who have denied it. At the time it was happening, the denial was at least, in part, understandable, if only because the horror of it is almost impossible to comprehend. After the facts came to light, though, denying the truth has come from a far more sinister angle.

It's not as evil as the systematic mass murder of millions of people, but there is still evil in the act of denying the Holocaust, because it serves to disguise or, worse, to rationalize the Nazi's genocide. There are still people who believe in the ideological underpinnings of that regime. While their "reasons" and "evidence" are usually as faulty as their moral integrity, even these people are intelligent enough to realize that the conclusion of their ideology, if followed through to its murderous end, is an anathema to reasonable, decent people across the world.

Director Mick Jackson's Denial presents this fight of facts and humanity against false rationality and poisonous politics as a courtroom drama. The legal battle did, in fact, occur as the result of a libel suit brought about by an English Holocaust denier against an American historian through the British justice system. At the time of the case, a mere 16 years ago, it was seen as an event of history itself being put on trial, and Jackson and screenwriter David Hare approach the film with that level of gravity. It's not just the history of the Holocaust that they confront, though. It's also a battle of ideas—one set based in truth and other based upon the opinions of a defective ideology that will exploit any hole or discrepancy in the record as evidence of those beliefs.

It's a film about how we approach history, as well as the importance of seeing it with searching and skeptical but not cynical eyes. It's based on the book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier by Deborah Lipstadt, the defendant in the libel trial. In the film, Deborah, played by Rachel Weisz, comes at the history of the Shoah with her own biases. She is Jewish, so she comes at her research with a personal stake in the matter. Her primary subject is on the idea and history of Holocaust denial as a form of anti-Semitism, so there very well may be gaps in what she has researched about the Holocaust itself and assumptions about people who do question the specifics of the Holocaust.

Her legal opponent David Irving (Timothy Spall), the plaintiff in the case, has made a career of picking apart the specifics of the Holocaust, using any conflicting accounts or pseudoscientific analysis as a way to undermine agreed-upon history. At the time he first encounters Deborah, surprising her at one of her lectures, he has become a leech of attention. Two years after that encounter, he has his best opportunity to have the world as a stage for his views by suing Deborah and the publishing company of her most recent book for defamation.

David's claim is that Deborah libeled him by referring to him as a Holocaust denier and stating that he falsified evidence to prove his claims. As Deborah's attorney Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), a prominent solicitor in England, informs her, the burden of proof in a defamation case in the United Kingdom lies with the accused, not the accuser. Therefore, Anthony and Deborah's barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), whose analytical nature comes across as coldness to his client, have to prove that Deborah's claims regarding David are true.

Hare's screenplay offers a behind-the-scenes look at Deborah's defense, as Anthony and his associates determine a legal strategy without her involvement. On one thing, all of them agree: This should not be an occasion for the truth of the Holocaust itself to be put on trial. Deborah worries that the plan might change when she and Richard visit the remains of Auschwitz, since her barrister seems to pose the same sorts of questions that someone like David might.

Jackson shot the extended examination of what's left of the camp on location, with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos framing the fences, barracks, and destroyed remnants of the gas chambers against the backdrop of a dreary day (Jackson inserts the sounds of screams that blend with the wind, which forces what doesn't need forcing). Their guide (Mark Gatiss) at the site, who later serves as a witness at the trial, explains the process of mass murder with equal, matter-of-fact plainness. The impact of the sequence on what follows is undeniable, since it puts us in the role of first-hand witnesses to the evidence that David questions in court.

The courtroom drama proceeds as expected, with witnesses lining up and cross-examinations proceeding. David chooses to serve as his own legal representation, giving him the opportunity to showboat for the press, and Richard picks apart David's historical assertions with surgical precision and an intentional, subtle display of disdain for his opponent (Wilkinson stands out among a fine cast with his portrayal of an unflinching professional who keeps his emotions close to his chest). Deborah questions her initial belief that the survivors should be kept out of the courtroom, lest David take the opportunity to attack their memories, when one survivor implores her to allow their stories to be told.

The significance of the story of Denial is self-evident. What elevates the film above a standard court drama, though, is not the subject matter but the way Hare and Jackson keep the focus on ideas—the importance and difficult of accurately reporting history (especially of a crime that the perpetrators attempted to conceal), the ways in which political ideology can color one's view of history, the question of how to prevent bad ideas from spreading.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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