In this era of “fake news”, it’s hard not to find something relevant in this compelling courtroom drama. At times feeling like it belonged on the small screen, Denial is a sturdy drama which at once kept me enthralled and made me really mad.
Denial tells the story of Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an American professor of Holocaust Studies who, in the mid-1990s, had just published a book on Holocaust deniers. One of those named in her book, a Nazi Germany “scholar” David Irving (Timothy Spall), ambushes her at her own event, offering her and anybody in the audience $1,000 on the spot, if they could provide proof that the holocaust happened.
Irving had made a living as a pseudo-scholar, claiming that the Holocaust was a myth invented by Jews for financial compensation. Lipstadt refuses to engage in a debate with him, and he serves her with papers informing her that he is suing her and her publisher for libel in the British courts. Irving sees himself as a serious historian who looks at things from Hitler’s point-of-view; Lipstadt believes that he is nothing more than a “Hitler partisan who distorted the facts”.
Irving’s decision to bring the suit to court in London is part of his strategy, because the burden of proof in libel cases Britain is on the defendant; in the US, the burden of proof lies with the accuser. Lipstadt is then faced with the ordeal of having to raise funds for her defence, whilst her legal team devises a strategy focussing on discrediting Irving in the courtroom, and for her to avoid taking the stand. In an extraordinary act of pomposity, Irving decides to defend himself, meaning he gets to take centre stage in a court of law whilst Lipstadt must remain silent. Staying silent becomes a key part of the defence, and the legal strategy essentially becomes: give Irving enough rope with which to hang himself.
This is an efficiently told story of an extraordinary case, peppered with real tension and superb performances. One often hears of actors making “brave” choices, and this should definitely be applied to Timothy spall who does not hold back in making Irving utterly detestable. Andrew Scott plays Anthony Julius, the solicitor hired by Lipstadt who shrewdly plans for the case to be heard in front of a judge rather than a jury, in order to minimise the audience for Irving’s theatrics. Weisz’ performance is energetic, and she does a wonderful job of conveying frustration and the strain of keeping composure.
It’s an extraordinary story, tastefully told and very informative. It’s tempting to draw a comparison between Irving and modern-day “commentators”, which makes this film unsettlingly relevant. Economic and devoid of histrionics, the story unfolds in a way which is procedural but very engrossing.