Holocaust deniers are crazy, dishonest, delusional and at their worst, intentionally malicious. 2016’s “Denial” tells the story of disgraced scholar and prominent Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall), who sues American Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), who called him out in a book where she accuses him of distorting history to serve his own agenda (he’s an Adolf Hitler apologist).
What is perhaps the craziest thing about this trial is that, because in the U.K., the burden of proof is on the accused and not the accuser, she had to battle him in a prolonged court battle in a country she did not inhabit, and Irving was attempting to put the whole truth of the Holocaust on trial.
Irving is depicted as a desperate man who is using the trial to try to win back a shred of credibility as a historian, and Lipstadt’s lawyers, led by solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), fear that giving Irving any sort of platform at all will legitimize Holocaust deniers and might embolden others who share similar views. Irving is trying to use the trial as a last-ditch effort to create a nonsense debate very much like our current climate “debate” that has polluted our public airwaves, in which conspiracy is treated as an equal to facts.
Thankfully, Lipstadt’s lawyers foil Irving at every turn, as he draws ire from even the judge (Alex Jennings), who can’t take him seriously. Irving represents himself in court, and I can’t help but make instant comparisons to Jim Sterling’s recent free speech lawsuit filed by disgruntled game developer James Romine, who is not a lawyer. If you’re going to sue someone in court, get a lawyer, especially if you’re not one. It’s difficult for even experienced lawyers to work out the logistics of representing themselves in court. Free speech lawsuits are also very hard to win, especially if you’re a public figure, and have the ability to set precedent that can have broad implications for everyone. If you can’t be bothered to hire a lawyer, it’s hard for people to see you as anything more than a joke.
With that being said, the film does a great job depicting Irving as a threat, playing off his education and background in academia to make him seem like he has an actual chance of winning. The film also acknowledges that the bar for what qualifies as a win for him is relatively low; all he needed to do was get a Holocaust survivor on the stand and pick them apart by asking for minute details they either don’t remember, or he purposefully distorted. As Julius says in the film “Survivors don’t remember. Not every detail. They forget something.”
Talking about Julius, I found the casting of Andrew Scott interesting, given his long history playing the villainous James Moriarty on “Sherlock”, but he is versatile and is capable of playing roles outside of bad guys. For me, personally, it added an element of unease, especially as an American viewer with little to no knowledge of the British legal system other than the fact that they restrict satirical rebroadcasts of parliamentary footage (which is weirdly authoritarian). And this unease is similar to Lipstadt’s, as the first third of the film centers around Lipstadt questioning her lawyer’s methods and strategies, fearing that they’re setting her up to lose, and her relationship with her legal team is, as a result, understandably rocky.
Wilkinson does a fine job as Lipstadt’s main lawyer who takes an offensive approach to the case by putting Irving and his claims on trial, rather than the legitimacy of the Holocaust. He does his part, and I would have liked to see more of him in this film.
I would also like to note that, while Irving is depicted as despicable, Spall is great and looks great in this film. I know him primarily from the “Harry Potter” films, in which he plays the overweight and hammy minion of Voldemort named Peter Pettigrew, and he looks like he is absolutely living his best life now.
This trial has been old news for quite some time, so I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that Lipstadt wins the case, despite saying very little at the trial, and Irving fades into obscurity.
How it would have been nice if antisemitism and racism also faded into obscurity in 2016, rather than getting emboldened by Donald Trump and other nationalist leaders like him elsewhere in the world.
“Denial” is one of the better films I’ve seen recently, but it by no means is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s a nice little biopic on a worthy topic that is technically competent and well-acted that anyone can enjoy and then vaguely recall a few months later.
It’s a good film that could have been a great film, had it been able to develop its themes a bit more and strengthen the relationships between its main cast, as well as its individual characters. Everything makes sense in the film, and it’s perfectly satisfying to see Irving get his comeuppance, but we leave the film not really knowing anything about these people other than surface-level facts.
“Denial” (2016) gets a 7.8/10