How do you prove that the Holocaust happened? If you can get past the ridiculousness of that question, how would you answer it? There might be someone out there who readily discredits eye witnesses because trauma builds false memory. Cyanide gas could have been used to kill lice, not humans. The underground rooms could have been bomb shelters, not gas chambers. With the most incriminating evidence blown up before the allies arrived, a devil’s advocate could spin the deadliest genocide in history into a fabrication. What happens, then, if that advocate starts to not only believe his skewed perspective, but preach it to the masses and slander those who tell the truth? What happens is that the masses – or one brave scholar specifically – take him to court.
Aren’t there better subjects to debate? For example: Flowers or chocolates? But no – David Irving (Timothy Spall) enthusiastically argues that the massacre of millions is a lie and that Hitler wasn’t so bad. One historian, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), just can’t take it, and when Irving serves her a lawsuit for discrediting his theories, Deborah takes the chance to bring her accuser to court. She and a team of lawyers prepare for over a year to prove that the Holocaust happened and that Irving’s claims of the opposite are slander. As unbelievable as it may sound, Denial reveals that her task is harder than it looks.
Can we please applaud Rachel Weisz? She plays the loud American in a room of quiet, English strategists. Deborah was ordered to sit down and shut up while the lawyers prepared her case. In some scenes, she struggles as hard as we do to avoid fact checking the opposition. Her opponent claims he doesn’t slander, then turns around and brags about his well-endowed immigrant house staff to the press. Can we call for a video replay? Her control and reserve is an uphill battle that Deborah struggles with all the way through, and one Rachel Weisz clearly wins.
But we can’t praise Weisz without mentioning Timothy Spall. It must have taken guts to agree to play Irving’s character, knowing what kind of man he’d be embodying. And Spall succeeds. I believed that the well-spoken, well-read Irving thought the Holocaust was fictional, and as a plus, that races and genders should be treated differently. It’s mind-boggling, but I believed that he believed.
The performances from every direction in Denial are wonderful. Andrew Scott as the solicitor, Tom Wilkinson as the lawyer, even a small appearance by Mark Gatiss as the subject expert, all amount to a spectacular effort to convince the world that Irving is telling lies. One character I’m not convinced of, however, is the young paralegal, Laura Tyler (Caren Pistorius). She’s as dedicated to the case as the rest of the team, but the film seems to hint that she’s involved for deeper personal reasons. The special notice, especially since she and Deborah don’t interact very much, is out of place.
While the story is profound, shocking, and emotional, the direction doesn’t really capture that flow. The drama flies out of some scenes like a wild alley cat, while in others we’re paralyzed by the haunting image of Auschwitz in the fog; but the two emotions are contained within their scenes. The anger or sadness doesn’t fade in and out – it jumps in and out like hopscotch. It’s a bumpy ride that draws on some emotions while cutting others off too soon.
Denial is a Holocaust film set fifty years after the end of the war. It’s shocking to think that history could be re-written so quickly, and admirable to think of the people who stood up to prevent that from happening. It wasn’t an easy job. When a million victims want to tell their stories, sometimes the best tactic is to let the hard evidence speak the loudest. It may take longer to yield results, and the process will be uncomfortably tedious, but sometimes putting conscience aside brings the best chance of victory. Denial is a shocking story of disbelief and what might happen if the lies became more popular than the truth. 7/10.