In 1996, Holocaust-denying author David Irving (Timothy Spall) sues Jewish academic Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) for libel, accusing her of ruining his reputation by labeling him anti-Semitic. Lipstadt is forced prove the existence of the Holocaust in court.
Denial has become painfully timely. In an era when ‘fake news!’ is a common rejoinder to any information one doesn’t wish to hear and even the White House will confidently reframe lies as “alternative facts”, Denial is about the consequences of words. Parallels with current events help it, as on its own merits its intellectually diverting but otherwise a somewhat airless drama.
By bringing his case in the UK, David Irving (Timothy Spall) put the burden on Lipstadt to prove the Holocaust happened, rather than him having to prove it did not. How exactly do you prove it? The film’s strengths lie in solving that puzzle. David Hare’s script offers lots of chewy moral questions – do countless eye-witness accounts carry the same weight as a single, tangible piece of physical evidence? Does engaging with clear nonsense, even to dispute it, give it more legitimacy? – and some scintillating scenes of Tom Wilkinson’s defence lawyer sparring with Irving. What it lacks is much feeling, which is surprising given its subject.
Scenes of Lipstadt and her legal team visiting Auschwitz are sensitively and powerfully played, yet outside of that Lipstadt is often a guest in her own story. She’s prevented from speaking in court because her lawyers don’t want to give Irving the satisfaction of publicly debating the Holocaust with a Jew, and as such her contribution is limited to impotently expressing her anger after the fact. The film presents her as the emotional core, but we don’t get to know her particularly well. The big moment when the trial judge delivers his verdict doesn’t offer the catharsis it should, or that its long build-up wants. The real-life case is so interesting that its facts are enough to maintain interest, but an adaptation should offer more than just a reenactment.
A sturdy by-the-numbers legal drama that really belongs on the small screen.