The American South did not attempt to secede over slavery. 9/11 was an inside job. Barack Obama was not born in this country. These are all blatant lies created or spread by kooks and self-serving provocateurs, all of whom are out for attention. Yet, spread these lies have to the point where they can affect history books or modern presidential elections. Denial deals with exactly such an insidious poison by recounting a real British court case in which a Holocaust denier attempted to put the truth about the mass murder of 6 million Jews on trial. The litigation was settled 16 years ago but its implications could not be more timely, or more harrowing, than right now.
In his return to the big screen, director Mick Jackson works from a screenplay by David Hare about a libel suit between the British, holocaust-denying “historian” David Irving and American historian Deborah Lipstadt, which spanned almost four years. Irving had sued Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books, claiming they maliciously defamed his name by mocking his assertions that Adolf Hitler never ordered the death of any Jewish people, nor that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz. And due to a quirk of procedure, British law mandates that the defendant is guilty until proven innocent, thereby putting not just Lipstadt, but potentially the whole truth of the Holocaust on trial.
What emerges is more than a curious case of history’s authenticity being judged before the bench; this is a courtroom drama where the tension bizarrely come less from a battle of wills between defendants and plaintiffs, and more from the severity of the subject a judicial system and room full of lawyers will awkwardly wade through.
Embodying the Irving v. Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt trial are a series of stellar, unfussy, and appealingly professional performances from the entire ensemble. Rachel Weisz plays Lipstadt with a thick New York accent and a constant look of bewilderment at the pomposity and audacity of what is occurring around her. She is also complemented wonderfully by Timothy Spall as Irving, a personification of the type of pseudo-intellectual contrarianism that often makes the halls of academia unexpectedly chaotic… and occasionally dangerous. As one character wryly observes, all of Britain is a club, and Spall’s Irving both wants to vindicate his infatuation with Hitler and the Third Reich while also being accepted in the parlor filled with tweed and the smoke plumes of so many pipes. There is a paradoxical look of defiance and yearning on Spall’s face in all scenes that is unnerving, yet almost pitiable.
The rest of the cast is also authentically understated with Sherlock’s Andrew Scott refreshingly asked to play more than a fiend. Scott’s Anthony Julius is something of a quiet but dwarfing center of gravity onscreen—a self-righteous solicitor that will take this case on for free out of duty, but deep down probably imagines himself as something akin to a rock star. He is also one half of the proverbial good guys’ one-two punch with Tom Wilkinson also offering a minimalist performance that is at all times fascinating to observe. In British law, the role of solicitor and barrister are separated, and it is Wilkinson’s Richard Rampton who must eventually take the cards pressed to his chest down and argue Lipstadt’s case against Irving, who elected to act as his own counsel and advocate.
Denial both benefits and is somewhat hampered by its straightforward demeanor. There is a certain frankness to how the story is conveyed, which deals with a most grotesque form of historical revisionism being crudely introduced into the mainstream via our institutions and media. The dramatic fireworks come simply from the horror of seeing someone like the film’s version of David Irving vilely use selective facts and circuitous reasoning to instill doubt about the evils of Nazism. Like Weisz’s unequivocating character, we are appalled and drawn wide-eyed to the circus. There is also an inquisitive nature of considering how to scientifically document the trappings of concentration camps that have previously been treated as enshrined and unassailable memorials. Hence, most of the conflict comes between the dispassionate eyes of Wilkinson and Scott’s lawyers versus the incredulity of Weisz’s very protective historian.
But the actual legal scenes are less a battle than a satisfying thrashing, with Lipstadt’s team systematically and thoroughly revealing the film’s Irving to be a liar, a racist, and an apologist for Hitler who intentionally misconstrued the facts in order to deny the Holocaust. Likewise, as good as Weisz is, her protagonist is mostly passive in the narrative once the characters appear in court; she is thus relegated to primarily struggle with her agreement not to take the witness stand—observing the proceedings with as much influence as the audience in the theater. Lip-service is paid to how she is forced to deny herself, as much as the Irvings of the world deny reality, but it is about as clunky as it sounds.
Other than some likely overstated dramatic semi-pivots in the third act, the film’s commendable choice to stay close to the historic record prevents Denial from actually being quite the riveting thriller it aspires to be. However, the film undeniably makes its case, and not just for Lipstadt and the Holocaust, but also for the constant war over historic veracity in the modern era. The movie brings to cinematic light the fact that history is not in the past; it is within our consistent and shifting perception of the immediate now, informing each current crisis with the lessons of its predecessors.
As moviegoers consider their own crises in the fall of 2016, being able to learn from the very much alive past, and to spot the charlatans who manipulate it for their own gain, causes Denial to be a cathartic and cautionary tale.
Denial opens in select cities on Sept. 30.