Based on the novel ‘History on Trial: My Day In Court With A Holocaust Denier’, Denial tells the true story of Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) in her legal fight for historical truth against historian David Irving (Timothy Spall), the individual who sued her for libel when she called him a Holocaust denier. In the UK legal system in defamation, the burden of proof is on the accused, so it was up to her and her legal team to prove that the Holocaust happened.
If a film is made by BBC Films, you know you’re in safe hands as they’re often: engaging, entertaining and/or insightful. This is a courtroom drama about the libel case about historian and Hitler apologist David Irving (Spall), a case that he put against Deborah Lipstadt when she called him a Holocaust denier. With our current hysteria of alternative facts and growing sociopolitical anxieties, Denial couldn’t be more fitting. It’s a film custom-made for a time in which politicians and anyone else with an opinion can change facts if it doesn’t fit their criteria of what the truth is.
I don’t think Rachel Weisz is given enough credit in her roles. Much of the time, she gives great performances in lesser known films. She doesn’t go for what’s popular and for me, I tend to get more out of those types of stories. She brings energy to an academic who finds herself surrounded by lawyers in a new environment, after she has a case put against her by David Irving. Andrew Scott (Swallows & Amazons) and Tom Wilkinson (Snowden) play solicitor Anthony Julius and barrister Richard Rampton to a marvellous degree.
Denial inhabits an uncommon dynamic for a drama of this calibre. Lipstadt’s legal team refuse to present her as a witness. To put her on the stand would be sending her to slaughter in which Irving would butcher her with his thread of alternative facts. Meanwhile, the screenplay is intelligent, stimulating and most importantly, honest and direct to the point. At times, Lipstadt is too smart for her own good, which irks her legal team, yet in the end it works in their favour.
Denial is being called a made for TV film, flat and two dimensional. I beg to differ. Denial is clear, punchy but most importantly, true, honest and piercingly relevant. Denial is all too relatable in today’s political climate, whether that is at home in Europe or across the Atlantic in the United States. Slavery happened, the apartheid happened and so did World War One. The Earth isn’t flat and we are human. These are undisputed facts. Even King Joffery (Trump) himself believes in alternative facts. So, this film is telling a story that has so much grounding in 2017. Quite frankly, we need more films like this because it’s not such a bad thing to be slapped in the face with hard truth.
Weisz plays a historian who is flabbergasted to find out that people expect her to debate on equal footing with holocaust deniers, while nobody would dare share a televised debate with Angela Davis on whether the Black Panthers were a real entity. Irving (Spall) disrupts Lipstadt’s lecture and sues for libel in the British courts. Weisz utilizes the skills of Anthony Julius (Scott) who puts together a legal tactic that involves the case being in front of a single judge (Alex Jennings) with no jury, thus minimising the risk of Irving swaying opinion with his Shakespearean performances in court. This manoeuvre is a play at Irving’s character, attacking his intellectual and social vanity.
The issues at stake are more than Lipstadt (a Jew) vs. Irving, a pompous English historian. History is on the line. Race, gender and moral standing are as well. Is a court of law the best place to argue this out? I think not, but the arguments presented are very interesting indeed. The judge makes a good point about free speech, as the trial soon turns into one on Irving’s ideologies but not on if the Holocaust happened. His opinions may be barbaric and wrong but they’re his opinions. That’s not what was on trial. To lose this case to Irving would mean an end to Great British moral decency…ahem. This film is clear in its message and brutal in the fact that even as late as the 1990s, our legal system would take cases like this seriously.