By John Corrado
★★★ (out of 4)
Recounting the events of a landmark court case in the 1990s that literally saw the the Holocaust being put on trial, Denial is an engaging and well acted drama that presents a lot of interesting ideas about the dangers of revisionist history.
The case involves Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), a Jewish professor and historian teaching in London, who comes under fire from David Irving (Timothy Spall), a Holocaust denier who has devoted his life to discrediting proof that Aushwitz was ever used as a killing machine.
When he sues her for libel and takes her publisher to court over the way he is described in her book, Deborah gets the assistance of a crack legal team led by Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), the same force behind Princess Diana’s divorce, and esteemed lawyer Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), who pours over every detail of the case. The fact that David Irving chooses to represent himself in court adds to the David and Goliath narrative that he is using to gain publicity for his cause, but the landmark hearing ultimately comes down to the simple truth that you can’t discredit history just because you choose not to believe it.
This case is dramatized in mostly compelling detail in Denial, a docudrama built around fascinating real life characters. The film does take a bit of time to get going, with its approach sometimes feeling a bit by the numbers, and more in tune with director Mick Jackson’s HBO work. But things take an emotional turn with a visit to the death chambers at Auschwitz partway through, and the film reaches its best and most interesting moments during the courtroom scenes. These tense legal arguments are performed with steely resolve on the part of the ensemble cast, making them gripping to watch.
Nailing the New York accent, Rachel Weisz portrays her character as tough and determined, delivering one of her finest performances. She affectingly displays the emotional weight behind Deborah Lipstadt’s work defending not only her own cultural history, but also bringing voice to the Holocaust survivors who are threatened to have their stories silenced by this case. Timothy Spall does an excellent job depicting the weasly and often vulgar David Irving. Although portraying an intensely untrustworthy figure who confidently spouts defamatory lies to perpetuate his own ideas and keep himself in the public spotlight, it’s a fascinatingly nuanced performance that we nevertheless can’t take our eyes off of.
The film is rounded out by a fine supporting cast, and a screenplay by David Hare that does a solid job of condensing the most pertinent information of this true story into the 110 minute running time. And adding to its relevance now, Denial‘s dramatization of a case that saw a man trying to defend his use of blatant lies under the guise of free speech, and ultimately get taken down by a powerful female figure, should have added resonance in the era of Donald Trump.