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If there is anything the internet does that couldn’t be done as well before is to be a home to and allow the propagation of untruths, conspiracy theories, misinformation and hatred. From landing on the Moon to Elvis Presley and everything in-between, these plots have found a dark home on cyberspace, allowing inaccurate, unjust, and often hurtful ideas to spread. One spurious conspiracy that still has grip on the ‘net is the long-held belief that the Jewish Holocaust never happened. Denial is a film based heavily on real events where that idea was refuted in a landmark courtroom decision that while monumentally significant in real life, finds little strength on screen.
Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) teaches on the subject and writes a book that attacks a denier named David Irving (Timothy Spall), a self-taught historian who has spent most of his life studying The Third Reich and Hitler’s agenda. He files a libel lawsuit against the publisher, and having done so in the U.K., requires the burden of proof be on the accused, not the accuser. That means Lipstadt is considered guilty and must prove herself innocent.
She is represented by solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), famous at the time for handling the divorce case of Princess Diana. He gathers a strong defense team, who effort to pore over Irving’s vast collection writings and lectures and then form a strategy that puts Lipstadt out of the spotlight, a place she’s not comfortable being, believing she and the Holocaust survivors who come to know her, see this case as a chance to testify. Julius claims it will only legitimize Irving. He assures her that the case is not about the survivors but about dismantling the supposed “facts” that Irving puts forth, and to do that, there is none other than barrister Richard Hampton (Tom Wilkinson), a rigorously by-the-book legal mind to do the job, even when he seems emotionally detached from the initial proceedings. She comes to learn though, that he is actually her greatest ally.
Directed by Mick Jackson, Denial is a film about the slow, deliberate, evisceration of Irving’s outlandish claims, a courtroom drama that puts the conspiracy itself on trial. It works best when presenting arguments, taking great pains to breakdown the falsehoods of Irving’s callous rewriting of history, with some expected eloquence from Hampton’s cross-examination as the judge sitting in court and the court of public opinion deliberates. These speeches resonant and help to expand our own knowledge and understanding, even if they feel familiar, simply because what courtroom movie doesn’t have these kinds of speeches?
Yet this is also where the premise itself loses some power, mostly because there’s little suspense in knowing what the verdict will be. Irving has no case, and is shown repeatedly to be not only unknowing and misrepresentative of a history he claims to be expert in, but an obvious bigot and racist, which serve only to make it obvious that he can’t possibly come out on the right end of the verdict. This is momentarily suspended by a last minute question by the judge (Hilton McRae) that attempts to derail our expectations and create some kind of anxiety, but is transparent and without effect.
The film entire lacks any real tension, something a good courtroom thriller ought to have, and there are too many abandoned subplots and story threads that betray a film with a lot of edits. Still, there are some good moments here, and while we don’t get much in the way of character development, we feel some investment in Lipstadt, thanks to an energetic performance from Weisz, though even that doesn’t elevate this to where it needs to go. Spall is suitably unlikable, but somehow not unlikable enough, nor remotely threatening. Certainly, the intent was make him seem charming, hence his slippery ability to woe converts to his position, but he hardly has any presence in terms of the threat he embodies.
There are two magnifienct moments in the film though, one that begins in the early morning haze on the grounds of the real Auschwitz site as Listadt and some lawyers, including Hampton, attempt to gather evidence for the case. Jackson films this lengthy sequence with solemn care, and there’s no escaping the immense weight of this dark period. It is followed later in the courtroom with Hampton’s physical indignation of Irving, refusing to look at him, even while questioning him on the stand. Hampton’s demeanor and revulsion, well conveyed by Wilkinson’s great work here, is where this film find its only real heights. It’s too bad, given the power of the subject, it couldn’t maintain it.
Movie description: Denial is a 2016 historical drama about an acclaimed historian who is sued for libel and fights to prove herself against a Holocaust denier.
Director(s): Mick Jackson
Actor(s): Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall