There are flaws in this film, flaws that are difficult to ignore.
Of all the things to claim doesn’t exist, why the most devastating and least likely to be forgotten genocides ever committed? This is the question that generates fascination about Holocaust deniers. The horrors of World War II still exist in our shared consciousness. It’s the defining tragedy of modern times. This leaves many of us wanting to know how the minds of deniers function. Why won’t they believe? No doubt there have been movies made about the subject, but this one offers something enticing and original that doesn’t just seek to understand bigoted ignorance. We are shown the unsettling and inflammatory Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall); the Jewish historian and theologian that he targets, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz); but most interesting of all, the peculiarities of the British legal system. I say peculiarities because in the U.K., guilt is the presumption rather than innocence, like in the U.S. (in theory). When Lipstadt calls Irving out for being a falsifier of history in her book on Holocaust deniers (which he certainly was), the burden of proof falls on her in the following libel suit Irving files against her.
It’s hard for me to criticize the movie because courtroom dramas can be so watchable and the subject of the Holocaust and antisemitism are hard, emotionally charged subjects. I’m glad this story was committed to screen where I could view and process it in a digestible hour and 50 minutes. And indeed, the courtroom drama segments were very compelling. The horrors of Nazi Germany and “voice of suffering,” as it was referred to in the film, also bring undeniable poignancy. But there are flaws in this film, flaws that are difficult to ignore.
Rachel Weisz gives a really good performance as Deborah Lipstadt, but it’s a repetitive one. The character has very little to do and seemingly couldn’t have been written any other way. The reality is Lipstadt wrote a book, was sued for libel, and hired a near-perfect legal team who took the entire battle out of her hands. Nevertheless, because these events were incited by Lipstadt and Irving, they become almost required protagonist and antagonist. This forces the narrative to be driven by a protagonist who will inevitably fall to the sidelines as her legal team must conduct the entire investigation into the veracity of the Holocaust without much of her input, and therefore the film dooms itself to having in inactive main character. Again, I feel there weren’t many alternative routes to writing a script about this story. To make all the characters seem more significant, it would have been better told in a non-fiction medium, where protagonists and antagonists aren’t as necessary. But in order to compel us in the way the movie wants calls for dramatization of the legal process. It’s a bit of a catch-22. Additionally, while Timothy Spall is effectively slimy and glum as the antagonist, the fact that the movie is more about how to really verify the events of the Holocaust and refute the beliefs of deniers gives him little to do as well.
None of this makes it unworthy of viewing, though, because the courtroom scenes are just that good. It has all the tension of 12 Angry Men and Anatomy of a Murder, but the way trials are handled in the U.K. adds an extra element of intrigue. The entire process seems much more precise, deliberate, and orderly. But at the same time, it comes across as much more intense. Trials begin ritualistically, and witnesses on the stand are not safe from badgering and highly charged blows to their character, including being called a liar to their face. You won’t hear a single person shout “objection.” There is no jury, only one watchful judge.
If the hardcore application of law and detective work combined with unwavering, logical, and swift justice satisfies you to no end, Denial has plenty to offer. | Nic Champion