“The story itself is fascinating, but Denial falters in making its dramatization equally as interesting.”
by Ken Bakely
Deborah Lipstadt, an American academic who has extensively written about the Holocaust, has said that she once found the idea of Holocaust denial to be laughable. It’s to be sorted in with flat-earth conspiracists and those who believe that Elvis is still alive. However, those who question one of the most horrific events of human history are a real and vocal minority, and their effects are much more nefarious than whomever believes that the world isn’t round. Mick Jackson’s Denial follows Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), and chronicles the most famous episode of her career: the 2000 libel suit that she fought against David Irving (Timothy Spall), a British polemicist and “historian” who has spent decades arguing that no Jews were ever murdered at Auschwitz. She condemned him in one of her books; he countered by confronting her and subsequently suing for defamation.
Upon traveling to London to develop the case, Lipstadt navigates the rickety constructs of the law, and her counsel (Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson) realize that in accordance with English libel law, their only path to a proper defense is to prove Irving is a liar. In other words, victory will only come from proving the Holocaust. But this isn’t as easy as it seems: the Nazis destroyed as much evidence as they could toward the end of the war, and Irving is a surprisingly effective speaker. Lipstadt worries about what will happen if they lose: Irving’s disgraceful views will be legitimized – who knows what else could be questioned in the future? The challenge is great, and the stakes are high.
The story itself is fascinating, but Denial falters in making its dramatization equally as interesting. Too often, David Hare’s screenplay dissolves into a repetitive drone of courtroom scenes followed by analysis. Rinse and repeat until the case is over and the verdict has been reached. While the decision is wisely made to depict Irving as entirely unlikable, this also means that the entire dramatic burden of the film lies on Lipstadt. However, the depiction of her here feels half-formed, a blank slate. This is a real person who is still living. The movie is based on a book that she wrote. There shouldn’t be such a disconnect here.
What saves Denial is the strength of its performances, from Rachel Weisz’s determined, gradual chiseling away of the chaos around her to Timothy Spall’s monstrous, boisterous, barely-concealed rants, masked in court by startlingly foundational arguments. The segments depicting the trial itself, featuring any number of performers in the cast, are energized, yet weighty with the proper gravitas. Jackson is capable at bringing about good work from his actors, although their collective and individual talent is already clear. The film is compelling in these moments, even when the words behind them are less than stellar.
Denial would have worked better as a play. By cutting out most of the excess that is sandwiched between the courtroom scenes, and substituting them with more compartmentalized appendices, it’s easy to imagine the text working onstage. Considering Hare’s experience as a playwright, it’s not surprising that the film’s most accomplished moments are its most overtly theatrical. But what we have here is a movie – conceived as a movie, produced as a movie, released into the world as a movie. And there are certainly redeeming qualities to be had as is, yet it’s impossible to shake the feeling that there were better ways for this story to be depicted.