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Denial: Movie Review

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denial-3The Holocaust is one if not the most well-known events in world history. Even those who would never consider themselves well versed in matters of history know what it is, and most would even offer up an opinion about its horrors and perverted psychology. No other historical event has produced as many books, inspired so many filmmakers, even motivated ordinary people to travel thousands of miles to visit places like Auschwitz. The word “holocaust” itself has now inevitable associations to Nazi Germany’s systematic genocide of six millions Jews. It’s quite surprising, then, to learn there are people that question the veracity of this well-documented event, let alone one that produced numerous survivors that have shared their horrifying stories for more than half a century.

denial-1Alas, these survivors not only exist but argue their opinions with vehemence. One such denier is John Irving, a self-taught British scholar who to the day insists the Holocaust never happened, or at least not how respected historians chronicle it. For example, Irving concedes Jews were taken to labor camps, but never concentration camps where Nazis used gas chambers to murder them. Denial, a movie by Mick Jackson, tells the story of how Irving came to sue the American historian Deborah Lipstadt, who has devoted years of her life studying the Holocaust.

The movie begins with Irving (Timothy Spall) crashing a 1994 conference in Atlanta held by Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), who’s there to talk about her book Denying the Holocaust. In the book, Lipstadt accuses Irving of being a liar and a falsifier of history. Irving, a cantankerous but intelligent man, cleverly stages his crashing, even films it, by challenging her in front of a crowd to produce one single piece of evidence that connects Adolf Hitler to the Jewish concentration camps. (There are none, as the Germans made sure all evidence was destroyed.) Soon afterwards, Irving is suing Lipstadt for libel in the UK.

denial-4The trial between Lipstadt and Irving is at the center of Denial, a film that proves much more nuanced and calibrated than its trailer might suggest. Director Mick Jackson rarely allows the movie to verge into campiness or high-strung melodrama. His direction proves quite modest, even subdued in plenty of cases. Take for instance a scene early in the movie where Deborah Lipstadt and her defense litigator (Tom Wilkinson) visit Auschwitz in preparation for the trial. They are there to search for any forensic evidence that might support the use of gas chambers as murdering machines. It’s quite an emotional scene, and Jackson appropriately makes sporadic use of the score in this sequence, keeping often-trite character closeups at a minimum (a cinematography method that many directors abuse to convey a sense of emotional discovery). Instead, he allows the camera to observe the characters reaction to and experience of this eerie setting on two planes: as objective researchers and as vulnerable humans. There are no flashbacks scenes to Nazi Auschwitz, no eerie sound edits of screaming victims or an ostentatious score to amp up the horror. The movie just allows us to experience the place as it presently stands, which is scary enough. Even as ghostly ruins, the place emanates terror.

I won’t bore anyone with an extensive summary of the movie. Instead, it’s worth noting that the movie pulls the rug out from under you by becoming a kind of cause célèbre for teamwork by the end. If it doesn’t boast the same economy of multi-character storytelling that last year’s Spotlight mastered, then Denial at least manages to successfully evoke a sense of teamwork through Deborah Lipstadt’s legal team. She’s employed the help of renowned solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and a staff of historians, paralegals, litigators and researchers. Her case is even funded by members of the Jewish community around the world.  The movie even literalizes this theme of solo effort vs. teamwork in the courtroom scenes: Irving stands noticeably alone on his side while Lipstadt is surrounded by a team of litigators, solicitors and researchers.

denial-2It’s quite fitting then that the acting is what stands out in Denial. Leading the cast is Rachel Weisz, who scales Deborah Lipstadt down to human size by playing the woman rather than the warrior. Her face is all too palpable throughout the movie. There’s never a moment where we don’t observe her thinking and feeling, whether that means anticipating another character’s reaction or digesting an emotional response. Timothy Spall, who seemed in danger of coming across as flat from the trailer, actually injects whatever shred of humanity one can graft to a denier of the Holocaust. Even the supporting cast is quite good, especially Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott, who prove spirited performers as Lipstadt’s litigator and solicitor respectively.

Denial isn’t perfect, nor does the movie really blow us away. It’s ironic that a movie that is about honoring the Jewish community and their challenges during World War II seems quite disinterested in exploring how they experienced this eventful trial. Nevertheless, this is a very good movie with respectable production values and damn good acting.

Denial (2016)
Director:  Mick Jackson
Studio:  Bleecker Street
Genre:  Drama
MPAA:  PG-13
Release Date:  September 30th, 2016
Author:  Braulio Ramirez
Braulio Ramirez Braulio Ramirez is a graduate from the University of California at Berkeley, where he majored in history and contributed to The Daily Californian as a movie critic. He currently resides in San Diego, California, where he was born and raised, and now spends most of his time discovering new coffee places to load up on caffeine and inspiration. On his spare time, he tries to write.

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