In this day and age of “Alternative Facts” and “Fake News”, it’s easy to forget that the fight for truth and factualism has been going on for decades. Even when something might be starring you in the face (*cough* inauguration crowd *cough*); the ability of some to deny what should be obvious is sometimes staggering. To this end Denial becomes a fascinating reflection of our current day predicaments.
Beginning in 1996, Denial follows the true story of Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), a professor of Holocaust Studies. She studiously teaches her students and refuses to engage with anyone who claims that the Holocaust didn’t happen. At least until she meets David Irving (Timothy Spall).
A “historian” of Nazi Germany, Irving heckles Lipstadt in one of her lectures and even goes as far as offering $1000 to anyone who can prove the Holocaust took place. Even though she attempts to ignore him, Lipstadt ends up being sued by Irving in the UK Courts for libel, based on her comments about him in her book: Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.
When both sides finally meet up in court, it’s technically to answer the charge as to whether Lipstadt and her publisher had wrongly libeled Irving, or if Lipstadt had correctly described him as a racist and Holocaust denier. But, like the press, it’s impossible that the trial doesn’t become about the ultimate question: Did the Holocaust happen?
I have to be honest. While watching this film the single most baffling thing was thinking “How the hell have I never heard of this?” Someone in the year 2000 really went to court in order to try and prove the Holocaust didn’t happen?
While it may sound like a court case on the level of claiming the Earth is flat, the film does point out some interesting obstacles as to how difficult it is to claim something happened when you have no physical documentation.
From the moment we glance Lipstadt listening to her Walkman, we share in her annoyance that such a frivolous lawsuit could actually come to court. Weisz perfectly plays that slow change from annoyance to the realisation that this outcome might have a profound impact on the Jewish community.
She’s supported ably by excellent turns from Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson, but it’s Timothy Spall’s performance as the stomach-turning Irving that really deserves unfettered praise. With every glance and word, he oozes disgust in every step. My only regret is that BAFTA didn’t give him a nod, instead preferring to give Best Actor nominations to anyone who wasn’t British!
While outstanding performance are across the board, I did find the script left each character rather underdeveloped. Weisz’s character, for example, is only presented in relatively simple terms: She owns a dog, she likes jogging and she hates antisemitism.
In addition the committment to realism, while commendable, does mean that the courtroom scenes aren’t quite as emotionally engaging as other similar stories such as A Few Good Men. Though to be fair, the previously mentioned superb acting does help make up for it.
This film may not be the best example of a courtroom drama, but what it does succeed in is giving a voice to those who struggle to protect the truth from the lies of the unscrupulous.