[This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Denial opens today in limited release.]
Maybe it’s because the 2016 Presidential Election is on the forefront of my mind (I read political news nonstop these days and check FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast at least 3 times a day), but Mick Jackson’s Denial seems surprisingly well timed. It fails in just about every other way, but you can’t watch this movie and not think of Donald Trump’s steady stream of mendacious statements and how it has so utterly devalued truth. Of course, the problem isn’t just limited to Trump. He’s the perfect candidate in the age where people pick their own facts regardless of the truth, and when Denial pursues this line of thinking, it feels immediate and thoughtful. Sadly, most of the time, the movie is telling its female protagonist to sit down and shut up.
The story begins in 1994 where Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) is promoting her new book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, which specifically attacks British historian and Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall). Irving crashes an audience Q&A for her book, and she refuses to debate him. Two years later, he sues her in British court for libel, which means the burden of proof is on her. She hires solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) to take her case, and he decides the best way to approach the issue is not to argue whether or not the Holocaust happened, but to discredit Irving. Although Lipstadt is skeptical of Julius and her barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), she eventually learns that she has to deny her impulse to fight back and listen to her lawyers’ advice.
I don’t think cinema has seen a villain as timely as Irving in recent memory. His arrogance and duplicity thoroughly embodies what’s wrong with our politics and our national dialogue. We live in an age where people don’t vaccinate their children because they refuse to acknowledge that vaccines are safe. We live in an age where people deny that the Earth is getting warmer even though the science is indisputable. Facts and opinions have become thoroughly confused. To paraphrase former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, people are entitled to their own opinions, but they’re not entitled to their own facts. It may seem ridiculous that anyone would deny that the Holocaust happened. But it’s also ridiculous to treat vaccines as dangerous or believe that climate change is a hoax, and yet the Republican nominee for President, a man who is currently projected to win at least 40% of the popular vote, holds these views. You look at Irving, and you can see Trump.
It’s frustrating to see a movie that’s so perfect for the age in which we live and yet bungles its narrative so completely. The problem with David Hare’s screenplay is that the title doesn’t just refer to a Holocaust denier. It wants to make the story about Lipstadt denying her own voice so that her legal team can win the case. That’s an absolutely bizarre predicament to put your protagonist in. In traditional narratives, we want our heroes to be active. We want them to speak out, to fight back, to lead, and basically to make important actions thereby conveying that the story is important. Denial takes the opposite approach by making Lipstadt learn that she needs to be quiet.
Every time Lipstadt wants to speak out, either Julius or Rampton informs her why she’s wrong. When Lipstadt pushes to put Holocaust survivors on the stand, Julius has to explain to her three times why that’s a bad idea, and he’s right. The movie isn’t about “Can you prove the Holocaust happened?” because that’s not how Lipstadt’s lawyers approached the case. They wanted to show that Irving acted mendaciously as a historian and deliberately misinterpreted or distorted facts. Denial isn’t about the importance of The Truth, but pointing out that one man is a liar, and that Lipstadt needs to learn the value of winning her case rather than making a show of force.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that went out of its ways to so thoroughly shut down its lead character, and without someone we can root for (beyond our agreement that Holocaust deniers are bad), Denial becomes a lecture about the value of shutting down liars, and yet it almost strives to be smaller than it is. At one point, Lipstadt points out that the danger with someone like Irving is “He’s making it respectable to have two points of view,” but Rampton articulates the film’s solution when he tells Lipstadt, “what feels best isn’t what works best.” Rather than asking us to engage, Denial advocates for a calm, clinical approach that can’t help but feel privileged and pedantic.