Conspiracy theories are an endlessly fascinating phenomenon of the collective psyche and the persuasive power of rhetoric. The Holocaust denial movement of the 1980s stands as an epitome of this binary between truth and fiction. Zooming in on the contention between a Holocaust historian and a Holocaust denier, Mick Jackson’s new film “Denial” attempts, unsuccessfully, to portray the struggle and consequences of holding up outlandish and baseless comments in court — a trial relevant and relatable given our current political climate.
“Denial” attempts to tell the real story of the 1996 court battle between Holocaust and Jewish studies professor at Emory University Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz, “The Light Between Oceans”) and infamous Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall, “Sweeney Todd”). After being taken to court by Irving in a British libel suit, Lipstadt must defend an allegation she made in one of her books: that Irving intentionally manipulated historical evidence to claim that the Holocaust was a conspiracy theory enacted by the Jews to garner international support.
This character binary between symbols of truth and fiction works as a driving force throughout the film. Weisz does a commendable job portraying Lipstadt as a steadfast, determined and strong woman committed to her academic field and Jewish heritage; her character is likable, and her frustrations are easy to sympathize with. Spall, on the other hand, is his usual repulsive self, aesthetically and characteristically. Despite his character’s potential to offer insight into the twisted mind of a conspiracy theorist, Spall spends the entire film sniveling and strutting around with hesitant pomposity. His shortcomings combine to construct a one-dimensional antagonist that offers an off-balance challenge to the strength of Weisz.
The film is also horribly balanced in terms of emotion, lacking gravity where it is badly needed and placing stress in high doses where it is unnecessary. For example, the first face-off between Lipstadt and Irving works as the perfect opportunity to lay out the contention between the two. Instead, the scene is childish and anxiety-inducing, culminating in a stressful and chaotic bout of incoherent shouting. On the other end of the spectrum, the legal team’s trip to Auschwitz lacks the necessary emotion and gravity of the space. “Denial” attempts the ambitious task of capturing the emotional weight of Auschwitz with long establishing shots of snow-covered barracks and an absence of an overlaying score. However, the scene lacks significant emotion; lawyer Richard Rampton’s (Tom Wilkinson, “Selma”) casual treatment of the camp as a crime scene, while a narrative plot point, reinforces the film’s incapability to capture the complex and raw despair of the space.
The most frustrating aspect of the film is the way in which it emphasizes and builds binaries that take away from the central conflict. The film focuses mainly on the contentions between Lipstadt and her lawyer Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott, “Sherlock”). Throughout the film, the two are constantly arguing about strategy and morality, with countless scenes of them bickering and getting nowhere. Scott also somehow always looks wet, which is confusing and unpleasant.
The film’s focus on the binary between the passionate but impulsive professor and the calculated but cold lawyer takes away from the real issues of the Holocaust denial movement — the way in which conspiracy theories manifest and take hold, and its implications on the academic community and the public. Instead, “Denial” is completely aggravating and disappointing; the viewer gains zero insight into the deeper issues of the real-life phenomenon.