Based on the book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier,” Denial tells the story of Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt’s (played by Rachel Weisz) legal battle for historical truth against Third Reich “historian” David Irving (played by Timothy Spall), who accuses Lipstadt of libel when she declares him a Holocaust denier (one who fervidly denies that the Holocaust ever took place) in one of her many books on the subject. This court battle takes place in England, and unlike here in America, in the English legal system, the burden of proof is on the accused. Therefore it is up to Lipstadt and her legal team to not only prove the essential truth that the Holocaust did in fact occur, but also that Irving was purposely distorting historical facts to suit his own twisted purposes. One would think providing proof that the Holocaust occurred might be the easy part, but when you consider what constitutes “evidence” in a court of law, things become “tricky.”
Let me start by pointing out that there isn’t much that I enjoy more in a movie than heated courtroom drama; probably because courtroom dramas have such potential for jaw dropping scenes. 12 Angry Men (1957), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Inherit the Wind (1960), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Philadelphia (1993), and Amistad (1997), are some of my favorite trial-based movies. Denial joins the ranks because of the originality and richness of plot and the thought provoking questions of what constitutes “proof,” and is there ever enough proof for a truth to be universally irrefutable?
This court room battle is more intellectual and less dramatic. Denial throws eye-witness testimony out the window and begs for science. This case takes on a life of its own as it struggles to avoid sentiment and attempts to rely strictly on physical evidence. The premise of this story and the way the evidence is discussed and researched is nothing short of respectful (even though it doesn’t seem that way at times) and fascinating. At times Lipstadt disagrees with the strategy of her legal team, which provides great tension in the movie, as the audience is left to wonder whether one approach or another will lose the case or get them a win.
The characters are well written and the acting is mostly excellent all the way around (with Weisz as the weakest player, in my opinion). Timothy Spall as Irving, this self-educated, self-proclaimed “historian” who denies the Holocaust ever took place, is nothing short of amazing in this role. You will despise him. Irving’s steadfast belief that he is correct in his assertion that the Holocaust never took place is completely nuts, yet some of his points are not without merit. But hey, even a broken clock is correct twice a day, or so the saying goes. Irving will remind you of Donald Trump in that he believes his own bullshit wholeheartedly, without reservation, and can answer a question with absolute nonsense while keeping a straight face. Irving spews hate based rhetoric and speaks in a harmful, inhumane ways and thinks it is normal. Irving proclaims he is not a racist, yet every time he speaks of any group of people other than those he identifies with it sounds demeaning, derogatory and just plain wrong. When Irving is called an anti-Semite, he swears he is not with such offense you might think he’s been read wrong; but then up pops a clip of him at a rally somewhere, spewing hate speech.
Tom Wilkinson does a magnificent job as Lipstadt’s skillful, booze swilling, tough talking barrister. Any time and every time Wilkinson shows up, you are guaranteed to see a great performance. He is one of those actors whose work I always enjoy.
Some of the scenes could have used a bit more fleshing out because certain elements of the case are not built upon, but rather thrown in, seemingly out of nowhere. And the flow of the movie is a bit choppy, as we jump from scene to scene, and setting to setting (between England and Atlanta), at times without warning. Because of the “jumping” certain scenes have an unfinished feel to them.
Denial earned 8 out of 10 bloops. It is a smart, original movie that is worth seeing, although, not necessarily in a theater. There is nothing visually stunning about it that will make it less of a good movie if you cannot make it to the theater and catch it streaming.