At one point in Denial, a few characters are gathered at Auschwitz and one character refers to it as “a shrine.” Later on in the film, another character refers to Auschwitz as the scene of a crime, and how it needs to be investigated as any other. These incongruous, almost sacrilegious, dual definitions are at the heart of the internal and external tensions face by Denial’s main characters. Director Mick Jackson, screenwriter David Hare, and the film’s stars find the right tone and balance to examine the turmoil of having to navigate the perceptions and legacy of the Holocaust.
Based on a true story, Rachel Weisz stars as American historian Deborah Lipstadt, who has written a book critical of Holocaust deniers. British historian David Irving (Timothy Spall) is one of the deniers she has criticized. Irving taunts Lipstadt at one of her lectures, waving around $1,000 in cash and asking for any proof of the Holocaust. This antagonism only grows and soon, Irving is suing Penguin, the British publisher of Lipstadt’s book, as well as Lipstadt personally. She hires famed English solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who informs her that in British libel cases, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Indeed, Lipstadt, Julius, and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) are in a situation where the Holocaust itself is on trial. If Irving wins, the Holocaust could become something like a global warming or evolution, a very real thing that people feel they can choose to believe in or not, for whatever reason.
Denial is full of strong performances. Weisz does wonderful work as a woman who is unafraid to be confrontational, a disposition that challenged when her legal team decides not to put her on the stand. The reasoning is that Irving is a charismatic and wily man, one who is defending himself in this case, and to allow him to question Lipstadt or even a Holocaust survivor could lead to a spectacle, one that goes badly for the defendants. Spall’s performance is terribly convincing as the shrewd Irving. He walks the line between a character who is both sinister and ridiculous, creating a character who exemplifies the banality of evil. Weisz is spot-on as someone smoldering with righteous anger and has no way to release it. Her scenes with Scott and Wilkinson are electric, as they represent Lipstadt’s only outlet for such explosive emotions. Scott and Wilkinson match Weisz’s explosive performance with calm focus, which give the scenes a sense of balance, but also establishes one of themes of the film: the cultural clash between a crusading American and the reserved English legal system. The performances and storytelling is so symbiotic; Denial stays compelling throughout.
Director Jackson impresses with how he handles such sensitive material. There’s great emotional intelligence on display, especially when Lipstadt meets Julius’ entire legal team. A number of characters people Julius’ small office, and Jackson still manages to take note of how different people view the case. With just a look from a character and the right movement of the camera, it’s clear how much personal this case is for Lipstadt, while for some on Julius’ team, it’s a notch on a belt. This empathetic approach to directing particularity vital in the scene where Lipstadt and Rampton visit Auschwitz. Jackson stays with establishing exterior shots, transforming them from perfunctory formal elements to contemplative moments. The scene furthers the rift between Lipstadt and Rampton as the latter must concern himself with the mechanics of Auschwitz in order to disprove Irving but Weisz, Wilkinson, and Jackson all portray the conflict in an understated manner, one that culminates in a beautiful moment between Weisz and actor Mark Gatiss.
As the film proceeds, it transforms into a more traditional courtroom drama, and the beats are unsurprising. But they are still played well. Spall and Wilkinson are riveting in their tête-à-têtes when Irving takes the stand. The scenes between them are even more impressive, since Wilkinson does not make eye-contact with Spall, which is the strategy the actual Rampton employed when interrogating Irving.
Denial tells an important story about the fight for truth and the importance of history. It’s a particularly well-done legal drama, filled with forceful performances that meet the urgency of the real-life tale being told.