As a sub-genre, the courtroom thrives in the notion of ambiguity. Did they do it, or didn’t they do it? Will the jury find them guilty, or not guilty? It’s a type of movie that lives for its grand finale, the big reveal. It was therefore something of a challenge for venerable filmmaker Mick Johnson, to play up to the tropes of the genre at hand, while knowing the viewer is more than likely to know exactly how this narrative pans out. Needless to say it’s of great commendation that we remain engaged throughout, and this occurs thanks to a remarkable display from Timothy Spall as the chief adversary – a man we know is on the losing side, but appears as something of a formidable opponent all the same.
Set at the turn of the 21st century, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) is a renowned author based in the States, who finds a lecture of hers interrupted, rudely, by a British historian named David Irving (Spall) who waves a thousand dollars in the end, willing to give this to anybody who can prove Hitler ordered the Holocaust. Someone Lipstadt has been aware of but strived tirelessly to avoid, he’s made that somewhat impossible, suing her for Defamation. The catch is, the case is taking place in London, where rather than have Irving prove his reasons for accusing Lipstadt of this crime, instead the onus is on her to prove that what she said is true, i.e. proving that the Holocaust existed. With esteemed solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) behind her, they proceed to take down this vile anti-semite.
Leading up the case many debates take place between Lipstadt and her legal representatives, as she struggles to fathom why she’s been told she cannot testify, not will they allow survivors to appear as witnesses. Not wanting to play Irving’s game and have the Holocaust on trial, instead they seek to turn this defence into a prosecution. We take the perfect middle ground, somewhere between intellectualism and emotionality, with the former representing that of Julius, and the latter Lipstadt. It helps that she’s unaware of how the British legal system operates, and so asks plenty of questions we ourselves seek answers to, making for a film that is accessible and easy to follow. Weisz turns in a fine leading display, and Spall is excellent too, avoiding cliché and ensuring he never appears to be a pantomime villain, always coming across as a human being – which, given his opinions, is hard to accomplish.
So with Jackson returning to the director’s chair for his first film in well over a decade, Denial does have the makings of a conventional courtroom drama that feels a little dated – and yet is one saved by the sheer pertinence of the themes being explored, as while told in a rather generic way, this tells an extremely fascinating tale. The line between fiction and reality is blurred, as watch on as one narcissistic, racist man builds an entire campaign on lies, his own mindless opinions masquerading as facts. Sounds familiar, eh?