Denial is the story of Deborah Lipstadt (portrayed by Rachel Weisz), a historian with a specialization in the Holocaust. She was famous for refusing to debate with Holocaust deniers whether or not, well, the Holocaust happened. While giving a lecture on the subject in 1994, Lipstadt was confronted by English historian and noted Holocaust denier named David Irving (played by Timothy Spall), who tried to bait her into a debate. She refused to fall into his trap, but Irving wasn’t done with her. Two years later, Irving sued Lipstadt in English court for libel, claiming she damaged his reputation as a ‘legitimate historian’ by labeling him a Holocaust denier in one of her books. Because of the peculiarities of English law, the burden of proof in a libel case rests with the defendant, meaning that Lipstadt and her legal term essentially have to prove that the Holocaust did in fact occurr.
Like most movies focused around legal cases, Denial is not really about the trial between Lipstadt and Irving. Rather, it is a movie about truth, and the people who try to squelch truth. The movie is a powerful examination of how the truth must constantly be defended against those with hatred in their hearts. Considering the current political climate, I feel this is a topic which we need to reexamine. The film’s main strength is in the power of this battle, both in general and in the specifics of Lipstadt’s case. In particular, a fact-finding mission undertaken by her and her team to Auschwitz (filmed on location) lends the film an incredible emotional punch.
In addition, the film also explores the tension between what is the moral action to take and what is the proper action to take. During the trial, Lipstadt constantly pushes to call on Holocaust survivors as witnesses, feeling that it is wrong to put the event on trial and not to hear from those who lived through it. However, her legal advisers fight her on this, saying that it would in fact likely damage their case since survivors’ memories are invariably imperfect, opening up space for Irving to cast doubt on their testimony.
Weisz skillfully plays the impassioned Lipstadt, a woman who will do anything to ensure that the truth will prevail. Spalding plays Irving nearly as well, a character who is charming enough that you’d probably enjoy an afternoon tea with him but who still nurses a burning racial hatred. The two of them play very well off each other, creating an excellent antagonistic chemistry. Unfortunately, despite its clear emotional impact, the script of the film doesn’t quite live up to their acting talent. The movie focuses too much on facts and details of the legal battle, and doesn’t give enough time to character interactions and more emotional scenes. Not to say the movie is unemotional- far from it. But it could have benefitted from a little rebalancing in favor of certain aspects and scenes over others.
Normally, Denial would probably be regarded as simply a decent drama film. However, because of current events and the contemporary political climate, it is granted a power it would not otherwise have. Our society needs to have a serious discussion regarding truth, falsehood, and hate speech. I don’t know the best way to have that conversation, but Denial is not the worst way it could start.