Editor’s Note: Denial is currently playing in wide theatrical release.
One thousand dollars. That’s how much David Irving (Timothy Spall), an anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying, stunt-embracing British historian, offered at a public lecture led by Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), a Queens-born, Emory University professor and the author of “Denying the Holocaust: “The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” for evidence or proof that the Holocaust actually occurred. Lipstadt refused to debate Irving publicly, but she also called out Irving out by name in her book, inciting the lawsuit at the center of Denial. Irving sued Lipstadt for libel, not in the United States where the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff to prove his or her case by a preponderance of the evidence (reasonable doubt only applies to criminal cases), but in England where the legal system places the burden on the defendant to prove the factual basis of the libel or defamation. In Lipstadt’s case, that essentially meant proving the historical validity of the Holocaust.
Lipstadt must repeatedly deny her own sense of justice… She’s not quite an innocent bystander – it’s her case after all – but she’s relegated to a bystander nonetheless.
Under director Mick Jackson’s (Temple Grandin, Volcano, The Bodyguard) assured, confident direction, Denial unfolds in methodical, meticulous courtroom drama, initially focusing on Lipstadt’s decision to proceed with the trial (as opposed to a settlement), a decision fully supported by her publisher, Penguin Books, before just as deliberately pushing Lipstadt to the margins of her own story. Lipstadt’s legal team, led by Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), a solicitor and libel specialist, and Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), a world-class barrister (solicitors prepare cases, barristers argue them before the court), convince Lipstadt of the wisdom of their legal strategy: Rather than re-litigate the Holocaust in court, up to and including survivor testimony, Lipstadt’s team chose the “best defense is a good offense” strategy, dismantling Irving’s claims one by one to produce a pattern or web of lies, together a deliberate attempt to deny the Holocaust.
In one scene, heightened by Timothy Spall’s restrained malevolence, Irving, a rare combination of arrogance and intelligence who chose to act as his own counsel, picks apart the historical record surrounding Auschwitz ‘s gas chambers, even going as far as claiming they weren’t gas chambers at all, but bomb shelters or that the chimneys used to deliver the gas that killed hundreds of thousands didn’t exist at all (they were destroyed as the ended). As loathsome and odious as Irving was (and is), it takes a formidable opponent like Rampton to counter Irving’s claims with the force of logic. The stakes are both personal (for Lipstadt and her publisher) and universal (for historical truth, specifically the Holocaust), in turn affirming the need to confront and reject the reality-defying, reactionary denialism in whatever form or forum it appears. It’s to Lipstadt’s considerable credit that she didn’t attempt to settle, recognizing that any settlement, regardless of how favorable the terms were to her, would inevitably give Irving’s claims undeserved legitimacy.
Under director Mick Jackson’s assured, confident direction, Denial unfolds as a methodical, meticulous courtroom drama.
On a narrative level, however, Denial doesn’t quite succeed. Lipstadt must repeatedly deny her own sense of justice, rejecting the justifiable desire to confront Irving directly rather than directly. As each turn of the case in court proves, Lipstadt’s lawyers know better. They settle on a strategy, explain that strategy, and put that strategy into motion, but it essentially pushes Lipstadt into a passive, reactive position, forced to sit on her hands day after day, occasionally uttering a well-timed expletive. She’s not quite an innocent bystander – it’s her case after all – but she’s relegated to a bystander nonetheless. The men do in fact know better, brilliantly turning their strategy into a concrete reality. Day by day, however, Lipstadt remains a frustrated, frustrating figure, forced to sacrifice her desires for the greater good.
Jackson repeatedly shows Lipstadt going for a run or jog (Clint Eastwood used a similarly well-worn tactic in Sully) as a means to get the audience closer to Lipstadt’s inner conflict or turmoil over the case and her team’s legal strategy, but it always feels forced and contrived (because it is), especially when she stops to catch her breath within spitting distance of the statue of Boadicea, a Celtic queen who led a rebellion against the Roman Empire. It’s obvious, ham-handed symbolism, unnecessary in a film that makes its central point about the need to confront and defeat not just anti-Semitism and Holocaust deniers, but the forces of authoritarianism and fascism so eloquently, reminding moviegoers that the law, that the legal system can be used for unreservedly just ends.
Under director Mick Jackson’s assured, confident direction, Denial unfolds in methodical, meticulous courtroom drama, though it occasionally fails on a narrative level, and overdoes the topic with ham-handed, obvious symbolism.