TORONTO – In this age of Trump where any statement is somehow a fact regardless of the truth, there should be something incredibly poignant about “Denial,” a film about the libel case between Holocaust denier David Irving and historian Deborah E. Lipstadt at the turn of the century. And outside of two fine performances by Tom Wilkinson and Timothy Spall that’s pretty much all director Mick Jackson’s on the nose courtroom drama has going for it.
In 1996 Irving (Spall at his best) sued Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), a professor of modern Jewish history and holocaust studies at Emory University, in British court for libel saying she had falsely characterized him as a holocaust denier in her 1993 book “Denying the Holocaust.” Only two years earlier, in a scene depicted in the film, Irving and some of his colleagues crashed one of Lipstadt’s speaking engagements. They strategically videotaped the event capturing her refusal to debate him on the spot and used that as “evidence” to push their mistaken beliefs about the holocaust to their followers. Therefore, when Lipstadt’s U.K. publisher informs her about the suit she’s keen to take it on even though it’s not in the context of the U.S. legal system. Lipstadt has made it her life’s work to chronicle the horrors of the holocaust and simply cannot believe any court would side with Irving even if English libel law puts the onus on the defense to prove the claims in her book are true. That’s where things get tricky.
As Lipstadt and the audience soon learn in painstaking detail, proving her innocence involves a complicated strategy guided by solicitor Anthony Julius (Adam Scott) and lawyer Richard Rampton (Wilkinson elevating the material), the latter who presents the case to the judge. Like most legal matters this case took a number of years to make its way through the courts (four in fact) and that structurally creates some fits and starts for the picture overall. The bigger issue is that outside of the judge’s eventual decision and one bad day of testimony that the British papers gleefully jump on there is little drama to be mined here. Screenwriter David Hare tries to create additional tension with a subplot where Lipstadt deals with the non-stop pressure of Holocaust survivors who continually ask to testify, as they were witnesses to the horrific event. Julius, however, won’t allow it because he believes it would simply play into Irving’s goal of discrediting history in even the subtlest of ways (did we mention Irving represented himself?).
More importantly, you cannot watch “Denial” and Spall’s borderline evil portrayal of Irving without thinking of Donald Trump and his band of media talking heads that continue to make the rounds spouting falsehoods without any true consequences. It’s a disheartening reminder that this sort of myopic “truther” perspective can be subdued by history (and the forces of good), but continues to resurface time and time again. It’s the best part of the film, but only because of the modern context of its release from those watching it. What’s most disturbing is Jackson’s pedestrian direction has resulted in a film that barely recognizes how powerful this is in contemporary society.
“Denial” is also disappointing because Rachel Weisz seems so out of place as Lipstadt. On first glance you wouldn’t think she was necessarily miscast, but it’s incredibly hard to believe her New York born accent she creates for the character and she often fades away as the legal maneuverings of the trial come to the forefront. Considering what a fantastic year Weisz has had with roles in “The Lobster,” “Complete Unknown” and even “The Light Between Oceans” you have to wonder if this lies at Jackson’s feet rather than her own.
There is certainly a purpose for “Denial.” Chronicling this case and the dangerous behavior of holocaust deniers is something schoolchildren should be taught and adults should be reminded of. And in some form, perhaps through more visionary eyes it’s a story that could make one hell of a movie. It’s just not this one. [C]