People often talk about a marriage of director and material, and the moment when the right person gets their hands on the right story. That generally tends to refer to projects where there’s a slightly demonstrative or overtly stylistic element to the project in question. But I wonder if, for a quieter example, we should be holding up the unfussy diligence of Mick Jackson, in his bringing of Denial to the big screen.
Denial is a dramatisation of Holocaust denier David Irving’s libel action against American academic Deborah E. Lipstadt. Timothy Spall takes the former role, Rachel Weisz takes the latter. It’s also a deliberately quiet movie, a little contradictory given the outrage the real life events caused.
We meet the pair of them at the start in a slightly shaky opening, as Irving turns up at a lecture that Lipstadt is giving, where her assertion that she won’t debate things that are factual – purely because someone says they aren’t true – is put to the test. Spall portrays Irving with a chilling understated level of reasonableness, his voice calm, his refusal to take in given evidence so matter of fact.
It’s when Denial moves two years on that it finds its feet. Here, we learn of the aforementioned libel, which brings Lipstadt into contact with Andrew Scott’s solicitor (a solicitor not shy about bringing up his work for Princess Diana), and subsequently Tom Wilkinson’s Richard Rampton. And they find themselves in the illogical position of having to prove something known to be true, simply because someone with a bit of money keeps saying it isn’t. It’s worth pointing out that the film, with David Hare adapting Lipstadt’s source book, has been in development since the start of the decade.
Back to director Mick Jackson, though. His career has taken him from documentary, to Threads, to Hollywood blockbusters and then to the small screen. He’s not a man blinded by the lights of a first cinema movie in a decade, and his approach here is quiet, still, understated diligence. It’s most obvious in a sequence shot at Auschwitz, where Jackson keeps his camera pretty much still, quietens the music, and lets us absorb what his camera lens shows us. But that approach also trickles down into his characters, who are some distance from the gavel-bashers who tend to infest big Hollywood courtroom dramas.
In particular, Tom Wilkinson is – as Tom Wilkinson tends to be – quite brilliant. His role is as testing as Spall’s (also excellent), in that it’s his job to be as impartial, almost as inhuman as it’s possible to be in quite distressing circumstances. Wilkinson’s gravitas and willingness to go small is key to the film working.
And it does work. There’s nothing essentially flashy about Denial, and it’s not a cinema film in the sense that the material wouldn’t work in other mediums. Rather, it’s a cinema film because it demands and deserves the attention and respect of an audience, without any kind of gimmick to yank them in. Modern political parallels effortlessly seep through, but the core drama itself is arresting in itself.
There’s an argument that the film could use a little more simmering rage. Furthermore, Weisz’s role is the one that doesn’t quite get the weight you’d expect as the movie progresses, and that is a hindrance. But Denial remains a quietly powerful story of people standing up, bluntly, to an outright liar.
Denial is in UK cinemas now.