Denial, based on Deborah Lipstadt’s book, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, opened this past week at Images Cinema.
In 1996, Holocaust denier and author David Irving (Timothy Spall) sued Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) for libel after Lipstadt, a professor at Emory and a Holocaust historian, criticized Irving’s beliefs in her book, Denying the Holocaust. Rather than reach a settlement, Lipstadt decided to prove in court that her criticisms of Irving were justified, since the the Holocaust was a factual event.
Lipstadt assembled a legal team led by Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) to defend her case in British court, where the burden of proof in libel cases rests on the defense. Irving attempted to show in the trial that he was justified in his denial of the Holocaust, while Lipstadt and Rampton had to prove not only that the Holocaust did occur, but also that Irving could not possibly review the evidence and genuinely deny the Holocaust without consciously manipulating or distorting the facts.
Denial is a fine movie, but falls short of the immense potential of its subject matter. The plot provides the opportunity to tackle questions about the nature and validity of opinions. The film fails to answer challenging questions, questions about the extent of one’s obligation to engage in debate with people who hold racist, hateful and objectively wrong beliefs.
On the one hand, if one is correct in her opinions, she should be able to articulate why she is right and argue her point in the face of opposition. On the other hand, seriously considering and openly debating opinions which are clearly incorrect and hateful gives those ideas a platform they do not remotely deserve.
This question feels particularly pertinent given the landscape of the current presidential election. Denial never really pursues an answer. It does acknowledge it at times, like when Lipstadt objects to debating Irving because she doesn’t want his opinion to be considered a respectable one, or when she advocates for the use of free speech but not the abuse of it.
Denial does not attempt to reach beyond its own plot, which can feel a bit disappointing.
Still, there should be enough in the plot to create an interesting movie. But Denial, despite dealing with the Holocaust, lacks the emotional punch to do its intensely heavy subject matter justice.
While there are certainly moments where Denial hits its mark with an appropriately serious tone, it seems unwilling to truly push its viewer to the state of discomfort necessary to properly capture such a disturbing subject. Denial is, ironically, handicapped by the truth. Neither Lipstadt nor any Holocaust survivors ever took the stand at the trial, as the defense team instead decided that their best strategy was to allow Irving to beat himself. Because of this, the movie feels like it silences Holocaust survivors.
Denial also lacks a central character. It does its best to shape the movie around Lipstadt, but this sometimes feels forced or becomes cliché, including far-too-frequent unnecessary scenes of her jogging. Lipstadt feels like a character we have seen many times before. The movie’s most interesting character, Irving, is given his fair share of screen time, but isn’t the protagonist. I cannot help but wonder whether Denial would have been a far better film had it further developed Irving and adopted a darker tone.
Denial is not a bad movie, but it is a frustrating one due to its failure to capitalize on its potential. Wilkinson and Spall perform well in their roles and the courtroom scenes are sharp, well-written and engaging. Although it occasionally uses Hollywood clichés in developing its characters, Denial does not compromise when it comes to telling the story of the historic trial.
Even if it doesn’t take a stance on some of the questions raised by the plot, it at least raises them. The story is well-told, making Denial thought-provoking enough that taking the time to see it is far from a waste of an evening.