Director: Mick Jackson
Stars: Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall
3 (out of 5) Globes
“Denial” is a cinematic subtweet. See if this sounds familiar: A ghoulish, self-taught, self-promoting charlatan tries to pollute the populace with bigoted ideas based on purest BS. He brags about his lack of credentials, he’s reluctant to make private documents public, he belittles his adversaries with cruel jokes and he crows that most people agree with him, without apparent evidence. He hates being called a racist, he seeks to be considered an equal of those who actually know what they’re talking about and, if successful, his methods would make the world considerably worse. Oh, and his fiercest opponent is a smart and capable woman, whom he loves to shout down and mansplain.
If you guessed that this is the story of how historian Deborah Lipstadt battled Holocaust denier David Irving in the 1990s, then you’re right! If it sounds like this tale, intentionally or not, says a lot about America’s current presidential hellscape, then you’re also correct. Watching “Denial” — a squarely directed (by the maker of “Volcano”!) yet precisely written (by David Hare!) and enjoyably acted history lesson — the resemblance to real, still-unfolding headaches outside the theater is uncanny. It’s the perfect movie to watch as the Trump-Hillary debates unfold, even if we currently only know that one of these stories has a happy ending.
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Rachel Weisz adopts a chirpy Queens accent as Lipstadt, an Emory professor who’s made her career forcefully debunking Holocaust debunkers. She swears she’ll never debate Irving (Timothy Spall, slim and looking very Droopy Dog). He's the deniers’ most boisterous and quip-heavy mascot, and her going head-to-head with someone who speaks before neo-Nazi groups would give him the illusion of legitimacy. But Irving is cunning: He sues her for defamation, citing a few digs at him in her latest book. She could pay a settlement, but that, too, would make him seem on the level. She decides, instead, to debate him.
Thing is, Irving was a snaky bastard in another way: He filed through the ass-backwards English legal system, where it’s up to the accused, not the accuser, to prove they’re right. That means Lipstadt and her team essentially have to prove, before a dispassionate court accepting only of irrefutable evidence, that the Holocaust occurred. If they fail, an abhorrent notion seeps through the planet like a virus.
Lipstadt actually wound up silent and seated during the entire lengthy trial, forced by her team — run by the same advocate, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who handled Princess Di’s divorce — to turn the grunt work and tete-a-tetes over to a brilliant-but-crusty (but brilliant!) libel lawyer (Tom Wilkinson!). She’d be too emotional, they argue, and the defense must remain clinical, detached. “Denial” plays like populist Oscar bait, but any populist Oscar bait would at this point turn into a battle between our emotional hero and the coldly rational snoots in her way — the prestige picture drama equivalent of a slobs vs. snobs comedy.
“Denial” almost becomes this movie — but only so it can show that it isn’t. Halfway through, as Irving appears to be winning, Lipstadt launches into one of those standard righteous monologues, shouting about how they have to include survivors on the witness stand, how they need to be more emotional, etc. You show ’em! Except that Lipstadt is immediately shouted down herself, Julius making the excellent point that Irving would have a field day pelting survivors with jokes mocking their sometimes inexact memories. “This isn’t about memorializing, it’s about forensics,” one character says. Thing is, the movie (ultimately) agrees with her. It subverts the wishy-washy movie which these films tend to become.
Does making a film about the Irving-Lipstadt tussle inevitably reintroduce Irving’s debunked ideas into a world that could re-embrace them? Possibly. But it’s also important to remind the world of dangerous men who peddle foolish ideas, who try to make the educated look like out-of-touch elites, out to delude the masses with mere facts. We must never forget the Holocaust. We must also never forget people like David Irving. Swindlers like him are always ready to fleece the public, prey on peoples’ worst and most gullible instincts. If we don’t recognize a wolf as a wolf, one may wind up on our television sets getting historic Nielsen ratings. Not that we’re equating Donald Trump with someone who denies the Holocaust; after all, at least David Irving could actually write a book.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge