Denial is a vitally important story, albeit one told in a rather unimpressive manner.
Denial documents the libel case that David Irving took against Deborah Lipstadt upon the publication of her book Denying the Holocaust. In that book, Lipstadt accused Irving of being a Holocaust denier. Irving took offense at this, and attempted to sue her in the British courts. Under British law, the onus was placed on Lipstadt to prove that she was correct in her assessment. Essentially, the court case put the Holocaust itself on trial and served to interrogate the idea of objective truth in a postmodern age.
Obviously, Denial feels a lot more relevant now than it would have two years ago. In fact, it feels more relevant now than it did two months ago. Or two weeks. This is big weighty subject matter, dealing with an important issue in a very sensitive and delicate manner. It is in many the perfect focus for a prestige awards-season film. However, the problem is that film itself feels rather flat. Denial often feels like a made-for-television movie, clumsy and forced. It is a film aware of its own importance, but lacking its identity.
Denial feels very much like a missed opportunity.
Deborah Lipstadt is one of the great writers on the Holocaust. Her work is insight and brilliant, layered with fascinating insights and clever arguments. One of her more interesting ideas suggests that a culture of postmodernism and irony have enabled Holocaust denial. In the wake of the Cold War, it is common for people to reject the notion of objective reality; one look at late nineties cinema (The Matrix, The Truman Show, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor) confirms this idea. There was a sense that was no longer a single objective truth.
In this age of irony, with the crumbling of ideological certainty, it became acceptable to open the floor to new ideas and iconoclasm. The idea was that such arguments were provocative and engaging, challenging people to justify what their parents had taken for granted. In the nineties, there were any number of subjects meriting that sort of bold debate; the necessity of dropping the atomic bomb, the legacy of Vietnam, the cost of Operation: Paperclip. Against this backdrop, Lipstadt argued, the Holocaust became one of those questionable truths.
It is to the credit of Denial that the film embraces this idea of relativism and legitimacy. Repeatedly, the film circles around the question of whether engaging Holocaust deniers in debate ultimately enables them, whether it plays into their hands. Does arguing with somebody like David Irving concede that he might possibly have a point that needs to be acknowledged? It is a slippery slope, and a double-edged sword. Not engaging people like Irving allows them to play the victim, while engaging them allows them to shift the boundaries of accepted debate.
This is a loaded and controversial topic. The modern world is a terrifying place in large part because of issues like this. Did the media’s attention on Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric during the Republican boundaries shift the tone of acceptable public discourse in the United States and make the unthinkable suddenly plausible? Does the Trump administration’s rejection of objective reality on matters as simple as crowd size and voter fraud further enable their capacity to distort and bend reality? These questions grant Denial a certain relevance.
Denial mostly comes down on the side of ignoring and belittling these offensive and horrifying ideas, trying to shut them out of the market place of ideas and insisting that freedom of speech is not the same as a right to be heard. The film frequently suggests that Irving craves legitimacy and recognition, that he wants to be embraced by the establishment. At the same time, the characters take justifiable pleasure in denying him that small measure of acknowledgement.
There are complications, of course. As much as Denial argues against engaging in debate with Irving, by refusing to allow Lipstadt to take the stand or by denying him the opportunity to cross-examine survivors, the film ultimately suggests that Irving needs to be routed through debate. As much as the characters might not like acknowledging Irving, they still have to engage with him through the legal system. And they still win. In that sense, Denial undercuts itself. The dangers of legitimising Irving are never properly articulated or expanded upon.
Perhaps most unsatisfying about the movie’s handling of the affair is the suggestion that Lipstadt managed to “defeat” Holocaust denial. The movie offers very optimistic take on the true story that inspired it, suggesting that the vanquishing of David Irving represented a whole-scale triumph over the forces of Holocaust denial and antisemitism. The film conflates the defeat of one person to the defeat of an idea. For a film grasping at relevance in the modern political climate, it is disarmingly simplistic in its resolution. After all, antisemitism did not go away.
However, the biggest problems with Denial are mechanical. Denial is an astonishingly conventional film. It is based on a true story, but it is also structured in the most straightforward of manners. There is a lot of talking and debating, but relatively little by the way of demonstration or engagement. Denial is a curiously lifeless film in many ways. Of course, this makes sense. Given Lipstadt’s skepticism about postmodernism or irony, the earnestness plays almost as a stylistic tic.
The problem is that the earnestness becomes a little bit ridiculous in places. Denial feels very much like a television movie, hitting all of the expected beats in the larger story of Deborah Lipstadt against David Irving. Irving is played almost as a cartoon caricature by Timothy Spall, feeling less like a real person than the larger-than-life public perception of David Irving. In order to ramp up the drama, Deborah Lipstadt is portrayed as very naive in the way that she approaches the case, the movie trying to wring tension in all the stock ways.
The defense’s refusal to allow Lipstadt to testify and their unwillingness to allow Holocaust survivors to take the stand are portrayed as big emotive issues that relate back to themes of subjective and objective narrative, but the truth is that they were simple prudent legal strategy. Denial is not particularly in the nuances of the arguments being had about these ideas, and the result is a film that feels very superficial about the mechanics of arguing a case on this scale. There is none of the compelling legal debate that made Lincoln such a fascinating watch.
However, this tendency towards earnest melodrama occasionally builds to absurdity. At a dinner party early in the film, the movie signals a change in the mood of the conversation with what is effectively a scare chord that leads into much more ominous background music. At another point, reporters dash from the court with a particularly salacious piece of testimony like something from a forties film. Waiting for the verdict, we get an intense close-up on the second hand of a clock.
Given the seriousness of the subject matter and the sincerity of the film, these moments tilt into the absurd. At various points, Deborah receives updates on public opinion by jogging past a sandwich board with the latest headlines for the case; just in case you forgot that Denial unfolds primarily in London. It is very clumsy film-making, something that feels like it might be more acceptable in a non-theatrical film. This approach ultimately does a disservice to the material.
Denial has a very timely story with an increasingly strong relevance to the modern world. Unfortunately, it never figures out how best to tell that story.