An historian specializing in the Holocaust, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz: The Light Between Oceans) becomes obsessed with people who deny the reality of that genocide.
Earning Lipstadt’s particular ire is historian David Irving (Timothy Spall: The Journey), a Hitler fan who claims the gas chambers of Auschwitz were made up. Irving is so offensive that Lipstadt decries his poor research and dubious motivations in her book on Holocaust deniers.
Having made a career of courting racists through the guise of “uncovering the truth Jews attempted to hide,” Irving is outraged and sues her for libel in the British courts.
The choice of court is important, for in British courts, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Thus to win, Lipstadt and her team of lawyers must prove that the Holocaust existed and that Irving perverted historic documents to claim it did not.
It’s not a quick process.
Experts pour over Irving’s writings and research for more than a year. While Lipstadt and her team are mired in facts, Irving takes to the airways, giving interviews and offering glib soundbites like “No holes, no Holocaust.”
The Jewish community in Britain worries that Irving’s insane but printable rantings will foster a new generation of neo-Nazis. Fearing that even a victory will be overshadowed by Irving’s media circus, they ask Lipstadt to settle the case before more damage is done.
Based on a true story, Denial is a fascinating legal drama about how far freedom of speech can be taken. Director Mick Jackson (Temple Grandin) frames the film as a legal battle, which can be interesting but has drawbacks. As the intricacies of British law are explained, we lose time with Lipstadt, who becomes a supporting player in her own story.
In fact, the spotlight falls, rather ironically, on Irving. Portrayed as an odious little man who sees nothing wrong with misogyny and casual racism, he is a bit of a mystery. At times, he seems almost comically self-deluded, spinning every loss or setback as a secret victory. One is never quite sure if David Irving is an evil genius or an intellectual gnat with a large vocabulary and a talent for media management. Spall plays his cagey insanity beautifully.
Weisz is excellent as the dogged Queens-born historian rankled that the British courts keep her from speaking, but sadly, she takes a backseat to this vile character.
Denial is a film about events, not people. The trial is fascinating, but the movie feels a bit hollow. I wish Jackson had instead explored the characters and what drove them to the court. From Lipstadt’s fiery refusal to kowtow to a bigot to Irving’s tone-deaf belief that history is on his side, these actions want to be understood. If only director Jackson had allowed their motives come out.
Still, in this election year, when outrageous statements are passed as truth, it is interesting to see a film that carefully proves that not all opinions are valid, no matter how loudly they’re shouted.
Good Drama • PG-13 • 110 mins.