DENIAL is a lean, literate, and emotionally devastating film. It’s based on the true story of Emory history professor Deborah E. Lipstadt’s (Rachel Weisz) legal battle in the British courts to prove that the Holocaust had actually taken place and was not, as asserted by Holocaust deniers, a construct invented by world Jewry as part of an insidious conspiracy. The audacity of David Irving (Timothy Spall), the Brit who brought the defamation suit, is matched only by the legal restrictions that a court of law requires, and the damning lack of evidence, including as we learn in the opening moments of the film, that the Nazis were very careful to never allow photographs to be taken in the gas chambers while they were killing their victims. The result is nothing less than the Holocaust itself as historical fact being put on trial, with the outcome’s ramifications including much more than the veracity of the event, but also the definition of what constitutes free speech in a free society.
Irving had taken umbrage with Lipstadt’s characterization of him in one of her books, claiming in his suit that it had created a professional and financial burden. By bringing suit in Britain, it then became incumbent on Lipstadt to prove that she was justified in her assertion. The explanation of that particular quirk of the British judicial system by smooth-as- glass solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) brings a gasp from Lipstadt over their initial meeting over lunch in a tony Atlanta bistro , but does nothing to quell her resolve to discredit Irving once and for all. A provocateur as well as a Holocaust denier, he had been dogging Lipstadt for years because, as she puts it, she she’s Jewish and a woman, so more bank for his proverbial buck.
What ensues is a legal thriller that pits the justifiably emotional Lipstadt against not only Irving, but also her legal team, who argue for cool heads and careful research rather than the eyewitness testimony of survivors of Auschwitz. What seems heartless, the barrister who will argue the case, avuncular oenophile Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson who should have won an Oscar™ for IN THE BEDROOM), cross-examining an Auschwitz historian in the rubble of the camp’s gas chambers during a fact-finding visit, chafes both Lipstadt and the audience. When she slips away later to recite the Kaddish, the ghosts of the dead marching to their death in the background, it is a profound emotional wellspring, as is her repeated demands that an eye-witness testify, and her agonized outbursts at both Rampton and Julius, who refuse to give an inch.
Our sympathies are squarely with Lisptadt, as they are intended to be in this Kafka-esque scenario of respected historian called to account by someone whose only credentials are a gift for grabbing headlines and an agenda that supersedes truth. The legal and psychological maneuvering that takes us from full sympathy to a glimpse of the larger issues, and the non-strategy strategy, however, is breathtaking. We are taken, screaming and kicking as much as Lipstadt, from the familiar and emotional to the rational and effective, and it is as revelatory as it is cathartic. As performed by a superb cast giving sharply defined, subtly shaded performances, it has the scope of an epic played out on the scale of a courtroom, where one carefully prepared question can deal a psychic death blow. This is white-knuckle storytelling led Weisz, whose toughness and vulnerability are equally passionate, and whose heart is on her sleeve at all times. Spall parries with a depiction of a small man of great insecurities and almost pathological need to be the center of attention, welcoming a rotten egg smashed across his back with the same satisfaction of the accolades heaped upon him by the neo-Nazis he addresses in Germany.
DENIAL is an unsettling portrait of prejudice in modern times, and the struggle by fair-minded people to deal with it by not playing into its hands or being moved to the same irrational stridency it advocates. Thought-provoking in the extreme, it is also a tonic in troubled times.