'Denial' in the Age of 'Nasty Women'

(UK/USA, 110 min.)
Dir. Mick Jackson, Writ. David Hare
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson
Rachel Weisz stars as Deborah Lipstadt in Denial.
Elevation Pictures
Deborah Lipstadt’s story remains another ominous tale that’s all too relevant in the age of Donald Trump. The case recalls a lawsuit that began in 1996 and ran until 2000 in which British writer/hack academic David Irving sued Lipstadt and Penguin Books for the author’s 1993 publication Denying the Holocaust. Lipstadt’s book shares some rather unflattering words about Mr. Irving’s insistence on repudiating the crimes committed by the Nazis against Jews and other “undesirables” in the events of World War II. Nowadays, he might call her a “nasty woman,” or something to that effect, for being so brash as to take a stand or speak her mind. In an age of racist presidential campaigns and unfiltered opinions, the fight that Lipstadt brings to her defense makes for a rousing and essential courtroom drama.

Colleagues, peers, and lawyers encourage Lipstadt to settle because the British legal system works contrary to the American one. Rather than face the courts with a presumption of innocence, Lipstadt must disprove Irving’s claim and prove that denying the atrocities of WW2 is a conscious lie. In short, to defend her case is to let Irving put the Holocaust on trial.

Rachel Weisz (Youth) plays the American Lipstadt with fiery gumption and conviction. She’s the kind of engaged academic one sees too rarely in scholarship as her passion and frankness aren’t simply for lectures and publications. As a professor of history and Jewish studies, she knows that far more than her name and reputation are at stake. To accept a settlement is to sell out the six million dead and countless survivors. That’s a lot of weight for anyone and Weisz carries Lipstadt’s burden with the sincerity of a true warrior ready for a fight.

At Weisz’s side is Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton), who gives a masterfully subdued performance yet as Richard Rampton, Lipstadt’s lawyer who accepts the challenge to build a case to prove the history that Irving denies. Rampton takes the difficult but necessary approach of confronting the history of the Holocaust without any emotional attachments or burdens. This choice is far easier a task for him than it is for Lipstadt, especially when they take a field trip to Auschwitz and he bemoans the lack of official forensic analysis at a site of mass murder within the half century passed. The visit to Auschwitz sees one of several cracks in Lipstadt’s composure as she insists upon respecting the dead by refusing to entertain Irving’s line of inquiry. Similarly, Rampton’s choice to withhold testimony from concentration camp survivors enrages Lipstadt, for she believes that survivors have the right to provide the evidence of her experience. He, on the other hand, finds the idea of letting a Holocaust denier cross-examine survivors is to give Irving the very circus he craves by choosing to represent himself in court.

As both a legal and moral case, the competing strategies and philosophies of Lipstadt and Rampton make for a genuinely dynamic duo. Like Cindy Blackstock who fights for children’s rights in Alanis Obomsawin’s We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice, Lipstadt and Rampton are among the true superheroes at the movies this year, fighting for humanity, dignity, and justice in the world’s courts. Wilkinson’s performance is especially fine in this regard as his Rampton refuses to see eye-to-eye with his co-council. By avoiding Spall’s eye-line throughout the duration of his performance in the courtroom, Wilkinson conveys personal and professional disgust against the plaintiff as Irving mounts his undignified charges.

As played by the great Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner), David Irving is a surprisingly charismatic man despite the vehement racism of his beliefs, like the headline-friendly challenge of “No holes, no Holocaust” concerning shafts in which Nazis would dispense cyanide into gas chambers at Auschwitz. Given the manner and composure of Spall’s performance, and the deadpan genuineness with which he delivers the utter nonsense of Irving’s arguments, one almost sympathises with him for being so consumed by his distorted beliefs. He’s a challenging foil, but an especially relevant one as more platforms build for radicals to disseminate false claims.

While there’s nothing cinematically sophisticated with Denial—it’s a perfectly conventional courtroom drama—the script by David Hare (The Reader) is expertly attune to character details and the emotional, intellectual, historical, and philosophical charges of Lipstadt’s defense. The three stars anchor the film with a trio of excellent performances, too, so one can’t really mind the by-the-numbers direction when the writing and the acting are too great to deny.

Denial is now playing in limited release.