Denial opens with an infuriating exchange between Deborah Lipstadt, an academic who is on a speaking tour to support her book, Denying the Holocaust, and one of the most prominent Holocaust deniers, David Irving. Irving crashes Lipstadt’s event and we are outraged along with Lipstadt by both Irving’s grandstanding and his horrific addiction to falsehood. Irving is not content with stunt ambushes in his attempt to force Lipstadt into a debate. His last ditch effort to accomplish that is to sue Lipstadt in London for libel for the things she says about him in her book. David Hare, the screenwriter, and director Mick Jackson make sure that we understand the convoluted rules of this unfamiliar process. They place us firmly with Lipstadt’s fish out of water inexperience, who is then subjected to a barrage of exposition on finer points of British libel law without being too grating about it (the first time). It helps that quite a lot of arcane legalistic exposition is delivered by accomplished actors. Andrew Scott (who you love to hate as Moriarty) plays Anthony Julius, Deborah Lipstadt’s superstar solicitor, with the same acerbic, dry wit he brings to that other role. Tom Wilkinson handles the role of Richard Rampton, the barrister who will actually argue the case in the courtroom itself, with rumpled assurance. Rampton is quiet and understated, but, in court, Wilkinson excels at conveying contempt barely veiled by the cut and thrust of the proceedings. Denial’s feisty heart is Rachel Weisz’s Deborah Lipstadt, full to the brim with warm verve and a strong sense of injustice, squirming under conflicting imperatives who feels robbed of her voice. Weisz is a fine foil to the steely rigor of her lawyers and the sad conviviality of her opponent, David Irving, played by Timothy Spall. Spall is affable as Irving, who is unfailingly polite in person, but vicious and unrestrained in his appalling speeches where his wit often plays to laughter. He can’t see his racism or theirs beyond the laughter. Spall masters Irving’s confusion about why everyone else don’t see the humor as well.
There is the germ of a great movie here, given the talented cast and the weighty subject matter. The filmmakers want too badly for the audience to be crystal clear on the rules and the stakes which betrays them into many repetitions of ground already well covered. For every bravura sequence like Lipstadt’s introduction to her legal team, a fizzing verbal sequence that flies through miles worth of exposition with style and dexterity, legalese whipping from lawyer to lawyer, before the bombshell of their legal strategy lands on Deborah. The film undermines itself with one or two or three too many discussions of that strategy, of the stakes, and the state of Lipstadt’s feelings about who is or is not in control of her voice at any given moment. It is a testament to Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard, LA Story, among others) that for the most part the the film doesn’t drown the audience in an effort to ensure they understand water is wet, but he can’t quite save us from a good soaking thanks to Hare’s script. It helps that, despite the repetition, the film otherwise moves briskly as Weisz, Wilkinson, and Scott provide levity and humanity while balancing the voluminous amount of technical detail in a grueling trial.
Most of the action in Denial takes place up close in small rooms between a few characters, and cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukous, operates well, if within convention. However, the film finds a completely different pace when we are taken to Auschwitz. This may be solely because the keepers of the Auschwitz Memorial only allowed documentary footage to be shot on the site. Plenty of critics and artists don’t think it’s even possible to grapple sufficiently with what happened at Auschwitz and eschew trying to do so directly. Denial is not a film with enough visual ambition to make an attempt like Alain Resnais’ haunting Night and Fog, but they still seem to recognize to treat Auschwitz differently. Exterior shots of the site show the ruins of the camp blanketed under a heavy fog that cannot help but evoke the clouds of ash that once emanated from and hung over this place. These are not establishing shots to get through before pushing on with plot business, Zambarloukous lingers over these exteriors and on other objects that the Nazis did not see fit to destroy such as the tragically voluminous piles of every day objects left behind by the dead, the discarded remnants of hundreds of thousands of people murdered in this place. The film flirts dangerously with heavy sentimentality as Deborah prays over the haunted ground at Auschwitz as well, but fortunately the film must move on and we are spared from that.
Denial explores the tension between the urge to deliver the blow that will vanquish an evil tormentor and the meticulous work that makes such a blow possible fairly well. Lipstadt is an avatar of the quickened heartbeat a rational, informed person experiences when an outrageous liar abandons logic to say something vile and unsubstantiated. Her legal team are the brusque representatives of the slog of law and logic. Lipstadt is impatient to deliver that one killing blow. Denial provides us with that blow, but not without teaching Deborah, and us, perhaps once too often, of the importance of earning that blow while denying Irving and all such outrageous bigots a victory out of emotional impatience for their comeuppance. Deborah Lipstadt’s work is affirmed in a judgment that leaves no doubt that David Irving deliberately falsified history to advance his racist political agenda. David Irving continued to deny the Holocaust and behave as though the verdict never happened. Lipstadt and Julius are aghast at Irving’s rejection of reality on television. The case was never really about Irving, though, thanks to his invincible sense of self, it was about to re-affirming the primacy of facts to establish truth for everyone watching. So when Irving demonstrates that he will never learn this lesson, Lipstadt gives Julius the best possible advice in the face of an insufferable braggart, who resolves to know nothing but what he feels. “Let’s just turn him off,” she says and they, and hopefully the rest of the world, banish him back to the darkness that he arose from.