Movie Review: Denial - the vibrant script saves it from being dry, depressing

Timothy Spall delivers an accomplished performance in Denial.
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Timothy Spall delivers an accomplished performance in Denial.

Denial (M)

110 mins ★★★★½

Denial tackles the uncomfortable reality of Holocaust denial in its recount of the real-life court case brought by the historian and infamous denier David Irving against an American academic, Deborah Lipstadt, who called him a liar.

eOne ANZ

Denial opens in New Zealand cinemas on April 13.

With this premise, the potentially dry courtroom drama has the capacity to make for depressing viewing, but thanks to a vibrant script by screenwriter David Hare (The Reader, The Hours) and accomplished performances all round, Denial is a fascinating insight into libel law and an aspect of historical tragedy that many of us may find inherently distasteful, but which demands to be disavowed.

If this intro belies the reviewer's personal bias, then so, unashamedly, does the film itself. It is indisputably partial, but the filmmakers' (probably reasonable) assumption is that most viewers will be of like mind.

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As played by British screen veteran Timothy Spall, Irving is a pompous, intelligent git, and while Lipstadt risks annoying the less tolerant viewer with her on-the-nose New Yorker response to the frustrating English folk, a heavy-lidded, reproachful Rachel Weisz makes her into a sympathetic character. In fact, it's no mean feat to engender Lipstadt with pathos, as her American vociferousness (smarter than Erin Brockovich but with a similar sass) sparks against the deadpan earnestness of her legal team, but Weisz is typically magnetic and truthful. In support but stealing all his scenes, Andrew Scott (Moriarty in TV's version of Sherlock) is hugely entertaining as one of Britain's highest profile solicitors, and there is even a small role for South African-but-now-Kiwi actress Caren Pistorius (Slow West).

Inevitably, and appropriately, the legal wranglings necessitate a research trip to Poland's most notorious death camp where arguments are laid out both with, and without, emotional weight. While poignant, these scenes are not laboured but treated with restraint, and nicely set the tone for various characters' journeys. 

Director Mick Jackson previously made a smattering of television and the blockbuster movies Volcano and, um, The Bodyguard – not particularly apposite trivia given the seriousness of this latest film's content and the respect with which it is handled, nor a compelling CV – but at least it shows he's not pigeonholed into one particular genre. With Weisz, Spall and the wonderful Tom Wilkinson as his leads, and a script which is by turns fun, lively but never frivolous, he has created all the elements of a winning case.  

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