Film and TV

Engaging Courtroom Drama Denial Puts the Holocaust on Trial

Adults in 2016 know not to feed the trolls. If you have to, though, you need to come on hard and strong, publicly glutting them on so much truth that they just curl up and die under their bridges/in their comment threads. So it goes in Mick Jackson's patient, heartening troll-killing courtroom drama Denial. With chatty urgency, Jackson dramatizes the 2000 trial in which a flinty Brit Holocaust denier sued Penguin Books for libel.

At issue, technically: whether American historian Deborah Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz in an agreeable gabber-from-Queens mode) libeled the Hitler-adoring hate-clown David Irving (Timothy Spall) when she pointed out in her book Denying the Holocaust that Irving's arguments, in speeches and his own books, are built upon flagrant distortions of history. At stake, more generally: whether established historical truth must continually be re-argued in courts of law every time a troll abuses the legal system.

Outside of the courtroom and a couple montages of Weisz out for a jog, Denial plays as a series of consultations, many fascinating and detailed, but some curiously repetitious. Director Jackson and screenwriter David Hare often find irony and pathos in the legal wrangling, especially in the slow, stupid grinding of the British court system, which encourages a very English dispassion. There's little doubt about the outcome of the case, so the filmmakers goose their story with a couple unconvincing moral conflicts. Lipstadt, here a warm and sharp-elbowed presence, agonizes over her solicitors' choice not to put any Holocaust survivors on the stand, for fear that Irving — who stands as his own advocate in the trial — would then be free to hector them with questions.

The logic is sound: The thing deniers are best at is hammering away at small details of historical or scientific evidence until just one thing seems to give way. Then they insist that they've actually smashed an entire edifice of truth. But this Lipstadt occasionally gets confronted by a survivor who can't understand why voices like hers aren't being brought into a hearing that turns on the fine points of practical fact and historical approach. Irving published a spurious tract claiming that Auschwitz's gas chamber was in fact not a gas chamber at all, an argument based upon the amount of cyanide residue extant in the walls.

Before a judge, such trollish evidence is best countered by science; still, Weisz's Lipstadt jogs in some agony over this. She airs the issue with solicitor James Libson (Jack Lowden) a time too many, at last accepting the decision with an unfortunate speech about the value of a second kind of denial. She also has to find her way to forgive gruff barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) for his focus on crime-scene details during a trip to Auschwitz. The complexity of the real Lipstadt's responses to all this, laid out in her book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, are continually simplified and flattened by the script. Lipstadt is often a couple steps behind the audience, learning lessons the film has already imparted. Denial is fascinating in its approach to legal arguments, forensic evidence and the uses and abuses of history — but, like the courtroom at its center, it doesn't have much feel for the feels.
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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl

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