HOLLYWOOD—The importance of history is something most of us fail to acknowledge. Sometimes we need to be reminded of it and the dangers posed by those who deny its truth. “Denial” is a subtle, but masterful tribute to the importance of an accurate collective memory, those who uphold it, and the insidious nature those who seek to corrupt it.
The plot follows history professor Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) as she goes to court in Britain to defend herself against a libel suit brought by infamous Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall). The courtroom drama becomes a study in tough legal decisions, courtroom strategy, the importance of history, and the duty of scholars.
The cast was tremendous. Weisz is impressive in her role as Lipstadt. Her agony at the tough legal decisions, intense frustration with Irving and his ilk, and intense emotions upon visiting Auschwitz are portrayed well with no sign of overacting or melodrama. She is intense, but restrained in her conversations with her legal team. Her consternation with a legal system that she likens to being “Kafkaesque” is communicated well. We feel her determination to, and we respect her fortitude. Her great performance is no small reason why the film succeeds.
Spall is fantastic as Irving. He’s a terribly underappreciated actor. His eyes betray his character’s fanaticism. He has this arrogance about him, but it’s not overplayed. We get the sense of a highly intelligent but duplicitous con man and bigot. He plays this villain perfectly, truly brilliant in every scene. I think Spall has outdone his 2014 role as J.M.W Turner in “Mr. Turner.”
For me the other standout was Tom Wilkinson. His portrayal of Lipstadt’s lawyer Richard Rampton was every bit the performance that Weisz or Spall delivered. I’d have to characterize him as the most complex character in the film. He can at times seem cold in his analysis and strategizing. As the film goes on, we appreciate more his desire to win. He isn’t selfish; as much as he knows how important the trial is, but it doesn’t mean he harbors any sadness or reverence at the trial’s subject matter.
There’s something to the feel of this film that makes it ominous. The gray, gloomy air that cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos creates is emblematic of the shadow history casts over the present. We know that one of Irving’s purposes is to belittle the survivors themselves out of his own anti-Semitism. This connects with the hard decision the legal team makes to not put survivors on the stand. Not because they aren’t worth being heard or don’t want to testify, but because they don’t want Irving sinking his rat like claws into them and berating them with demeaning contempt and mockery. As repugnant as Irving is here, it isn’t his greatest evil.
No, we have to reserve that distinction for the true aim of his historical project. This is what the film centers in on as we approach the climax. Irving seeks to minimize the holocaust because he wishes to legitimize the Nazi regime and anti-Semitism more broadly. If the collective memory of the Holocaust becomes diluted and confused, then the same ideologies that gave rise to it lose a major obstacle to once again becoming mainstream. It is the Machiavellian machination of a man who wishes us to walk the same roads that lead us to madness before. This makes the scene near the beginning of the film where people gathered around him to get a copy of one of his books so disturbing. People might listen, might forget. It recalled the power words have if used for evil that was so well expressed in “Imperium” earlier this year.
Irving’s evil intentions only make Lipstadt and her lawyers more heroic. This movie is an ode to the honest teacher, scholar, and historian. I can’t help, but be reminded of last year’s best picture winner “Spotlight.” Like the investigative journalists in that film, these professions are so often underappreciated and overlooked. They do fulfill an important societal purpose, and it is good that they are given a moment in the sun here.
We hear the number of victims, but can we truly comprehend? I remember one-day driving with my mother across the city, and somehow our conversation veered towards this subject. I observed that just shy of 4 million people live in the city of Los Angeles. If you wiped humanity from this city, if you were to kill every man, woman, and child in every coffee shop, office, house, apartment, park, car, and on the sidewalks you would not have killed even half the number of people who died in the Holocaust. Over 11 million, 6 million Jews and 5 million others from various groups the Nazi’s targeted.
“You were remembered. The voice of suffering was heard,” Lipstadt says to the press and a survivor near the end of the film.
I think that line sums it up. The most moving scene is when Lipstadt goes with some of her legal team to Auschwitz. Professor Robert Jan van Pelt (Mark Gatiss) and her recite a prayer in Hebrew over the remnants of a gas chamber. In this scene and briefly at other moments in the film, we see the ghostly images of those who died here. We are reminded that these were not numbers but people. Unimaginable numbers of people sent to a horrible death. The ideas and impulses that brought them there still linger in society and the dark places of the human heart. They wait for our memory to dim, so that they might live again. “Denial” is a superb tribute to a small group of people and indeed everyone who holds the line against this.