In an era of fake news and “alternative facts”, Denial couldn’t have come at a better time. The film elucidates on the notorious 2000 libel case of Irving vs Penguin Books Ltd, which made huge headlines, and had huge implications for the way in which history – and reality – would furthermore be dealt with.
In 1996, the – now disgraced – historian David Irving (Timothy Spall) had been spinning a perverse and twisted version of the Holocaust for some time, denying its most significant facts. None of his musings had gone unnoticed by Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an American professor of Holocaust studies – who criticised Irving in her book Denying the Holocaust.
The film begins at a promising pace, throwing the audience into the sharp set of events that followed Lipstadt’s book being published: Irving’s ambush at one of her lectures, and subsequent intentions to sue her in the UK, where burden of proof rests upon the accused. Lipstadt’s friends counsel that she should drop the case, but she recognises that she must fight instead. Something greater than her name is on trial; the facts of the Holocaust.
Denial is based around a very interesting case, and yet is not a very interesting film. It is such a sensitive and complicated subject matter that directors were perhaps too polite in their interpretation, and too committed to preserving – ironically – the truth, albeit around the trial.
The events of 2000 would have been much better explained in documentary form, not least because Lipstadt is far more engaging as herself, though Weisz’s performance is good indeed. I’m just not sure Lipstadt works as a film character. Her qualities of earnestness and intelligence do not make for gripping viewing, and Denial could have done with more emotional drama at its centre.
All of the acting in the film is united by its accuracy, from Spall’s ability to capture the arrogance of Irving, to Andrew Scott’s interpretation of Anthony Julius, the legal heavyweight. Central to the piece is Tom Wilkinson, who plays barrister Richard Rampton, with ease. In one scene he and Lipstadt travel to Auschwitz death camp to hunt for trial evidence. Lipstadt finds him insensitive in his pursuit of scientific material, though later understands its weight in the courtroom. Ultimately he serves to highlight the difficulties between staying objective, even on the worst cases.
In general, Denial offers a great insight into trial complexities – and how much of a fine art being a lawyer really is. It also demonstrates the importance of text and linguistic ability; which helped Irving become a revered historian, though ultimately destroyed him.
Denial has absolutely come at the right time – in an era where fake news has clouded our ability to find the truth. Had the film been developed in the last few months, it might have have expanded thematically – as a reiteration of the importance of fact over fiction. For now, it provides an essential impetus for the conversations we must have this year.