Denial dramatizes the long-running libel case brought by British Hitler scholar David Irving against American Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin, after Lipstadt labeled Irving a liar in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust. The curious thing about the film is that while its taut, marquee-friendly title is obviously meant to refer to Irving’s heinous pseudohistorical claims, the term equally encapsulates the central conflict that arises within Lipstadt-Penguin’s legal team: Denial is about what happens when a feisty Yankee goes to court in Britain, where her righteous impulses need to be repeatedly stifled in the name of good manners and sound legal procedure. Unlike an American trial—or, in any case, trials as seen in most American movies—a British trial requires its participants to wear a wig, stand in one place and, above all, exert rigorous composure. Which means that, compared to how we normally think of the genre, Denial is the very antithesis of a courtroom drama. Aside from its historical value, this is in fact the most interesting thing about the movie.
Adapted by David Hare (who also adapted The Hours and The Reader) from Lipstadt’s 2005 memoir, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, and given sturdy direction from elder journeyman Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard,Volcano), Denial is precisely the sort of stately prestige production that draws respectable, award-winning actors. Rachel Weisz plays the earnest and outspoken Lipstadt, while an astonishingly slimmed down Timothy Spall plays the showboaty Irving. Both are excellent actors and responsible for bringing a modicum of energy to the largely somber proceedings. Yet it is Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson who provide Denial with its most finely graded and nuanced performances, playing, respectively, Lipstadt-Penguin’s barrister and solicitor, who gradually emerge as the most complex and fascinating characters in the film. They initially seem to be Lipstadt’s enemies, ever urging her to reel in her fire, to refrain from bringing Holocaust survivors to stand, and to antagonize Irving further. They, of course, prove to be Lipstadt’s devout allies.