“Not all opinions are equal.” This statement, tucked into Denial with little fanfare, forms the meat of the film’s focus. A sturdy yet affecting courtroom drama, Denial is about a lot of things, including a man’s desire to be bigoted and racist without being called out for bigotry and racism.
The first time we see David Irving (a frightfully sour-faced Timothy Spall), he’s theatrically interrupting a lecture by professor Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz). With a stack of cash in one fist, belligerently shouting down Lipstadt at her own appearance, he insists that no one can show him proof of the Holocaust. If someone could, he’d give them a thousand dollars.
Years ago, with The Hours, screenwriter David Hare showed great empathy for female characters, and Denial is very much in that mold. Lipstadt is the centerpiece of the film, and of the trial that unfolds when Irving sues her in a British court. As the defendant, she must prove that her description of Irving as a Holocaust denier was not libelous, but true. And to prove that Irving is a Holocaust denier, she in essence must prove the Holocaust happened.
Passionate, smart, and angry as hell, Lipstadt wants her moment in court. Her very British legal team advises against it. They don’t want her or survivors on the stand, subject to Irving’s questioning. Anthony Julius (a terse Andrew Scott) only gives her brief explanations for these choices, and won’t budge. It’s infuriating, and Hare centers that frustration. His screenplay combines with Weisz’s performance to make Denial, in part, a portrait of a woman in a peculiar position: for the greater good, she has to step out of the way and let her lawyers fight her battle — which is both about her, and not about her at all.
Lipstadt’s acceptance of this is nudged along by another member of her legal team, Richard Rampton, played with astonishing calm by Tom Wilkinson. Utterly convincing in court, he’s also a gently righteous paternal figure. A lesser actor might have come off as patronizing, pouring Lipstadt wine and letting her fume, but Wilkinson listens.
Denial takes place over six years, and if the movie has a major surface flaw, it’s the lack of sense of time passing. (Did Lipstadt really never change her hair in the ’90s?) It’s a plain and functional movie visually; director Mick Jackson, who hasn’t directed a feature film in nearly 20 years, stays focused on his actors. What elevates it from being simply a smart but dry courtroom drama is Weisz’s performance, her characterization of Lipstadt as an opinionated, sometimes argumentative, intense woman who believes fiercely in herself and her sense of justice.
One conflict, between Lipstadt and Irving, is in the courtroom. The other, between Lipstadt and herself, her desire to fight her own battle, is much more interior, but plays out beautifully in Weisz’s face and presence. Denial isn’t a perfect film, but in an election season where untruths go unchallenged and absurd rhetoric is par for the course, it’s a satisfying reminder that hatred doesn’t always win. (Broadway Metro)