Although the libel trial brought by British Holocaust denier David Irving against the American academic Deborah Lipstadt happened nearly 20 years ago, it simply could not be more pertinent today. With the level of discourse about various attacks on the truth and a certain current presidential campaign that had its beginnings on a lie and the birther movement, the issues brought up in the incredibly powerful and fascinating new drama Denial not only make this movie vital for today’s audiences in the era of Donald Trump, it also makes it the most important and urgent film of 2016. The fact that it has been in development for seven or eight years makes it even more remarkable, since it shows the more things change, the more they stay the same and that the power of someone’s words — actually lies — is more lethal than a weapon and must be stopped.
That is the story of what happened to New York-born historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), when, after her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory was published in the UK, she suddenly was sued for libel by Irving (Timothy Spall), a writer of texts about World War II and a leading denier that the Holocaust happened. Worse for her was the fact that the UK’s libel laws put the burden of proof on the defendant, so she not only had to defend the truth of her own accusations against Irving but had to prove the Holocaust reality in a court of law. Adding to the legal woes, her British team of lawyers led by Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) and solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) would not allow her or any Holocaust survivors to take the witness stand, fearing what Irving’s team might do to them during the trial. Still, against all odds, she refused to settle, and director Mick Jackson’s (Temple Grandin, L.A. Story) strong depiction of this incident jumps between the trial and her interactions with her lawyers. There also is an incredibly moving sequence detailing the trip to the Auschwitz concentration camp in German-Occupied Poland that the legal team took, shot partially at the location.
The great British playwright David Hare wrote the screenplay based on Lipstadt’s book and her follow-up, Denial: Holocaust History on Trial, and he has stuck entirely to the actual words spoken in that courtroom for the key showdown. This is just riveting filmmaking at its finest. And Lipstadt is a real firecracker of a character, particularly as portrayed by Weisz, who is in top form here, really nailing the accent and essence of this courageous woman who finds herself in the middle of a legal debate over the very existence of perhaps history’s and humanity’s most shameful chapter. Spall, taking on what could be a thankless, no-win character, brings three dimensions to this despicable man and turns in a performance that must be considered when Supporting Actor nominations are made. Wilkinson, as usual, is also first rate as is the rest of a perfectly cast film.
Jackson and Hare have found a way to make all of this thrillingly cinematic, even though in other hands it might have been too dry to have the impact these filmmakers have landed. Denial is a movie that never lags, and for what it manages to say about the dangers of a lie — particularly now that we live in the age of the Internet — it is a rich and rewarding motion picture experience that must not be missed. Producers are Gary Foster and Russ Krasnoff. U.S. distributor Bleecker Street opens the film, produced in association with BBC Films and Participant Media among others, Friday in select theaters.
Do you plan to see Denial? Let us know what you think.