‘Post-truth’ has been around for longer than you’d think. What has changed, though, is how we have democratised its performance – the wacko leafleter is now anyone with a Wi-Fi connection and a bone to pick. One shudders to think how much more insidious Holocaust-denier David Irving would be if he’d been on Twitter. Denial is the fairly middling take on how Irving sued a historian of the genocide in 1996 for defamation; forcing a court, in effect, to try the existence or otherwise of history’s greatest crime.
The dependably brilliant Rachel Weisz plays Deborah E. Lipstadt, the historian whose book Irving (portrayed by Timothy Spall) took so much umbrage at. Their first encounter will be depressingly familiar to anyone woke to contemporary misogyny – she’s speaking publicly about her new book, he’s disrupting proceedings by trying to shout her down. From the start their rivalry takes place before an audience, and it’s as such that we follow their showdown, in the press, through lawyers, and before a British judge.
As Irving, Timothy Spall is near perfect. In fact, it’s hard to think of another actor who could capture Irving’s pompous, oblivious reprehensibility so well. Much of the film however focuses on Lipstadt’s relationship to her legal team – the dashingly gaunt Andrew Scott as solicitor Anthony Julius, and the libel lawyer Richard Rampton, played in a grandfatherly manner by Tom Wilkinson. The cast, then, is knock-out, to the extent that director Mick Jackson need do little more than point the camera and snap a clapperboard.
It’s hard not to feel cheated at how Denial never delivers on this promise. The script is sadly straight-to-ITV, and focuses too much on the contrast between Lipstadt’s New York no-nonsense and her stuffy English colleagues. When Rampton starts explaining black pudding to a bemused Lipstadt, or the latter pauses her jog to stare admiringly at a statue of Boudicca, it’s awkwardly clear how out of its depth Denial has become.
Therein lies the more serious problem – a tale as relevant and important as this cannot afford to be so mediocre. A trip to Auschwitz in the film’s midpoint only broadcasts the dangers involved; indeed, you can sense the filmmakers buckle at horrors of such magnitude. Their response – a strange mix of cardboard sentiment and documentary refrain – is where Denial’s abilities definitively fall short of its ambitions.
This isn’t a poor film. Lipstadt versus Irving is a story interesting enough to tell itself, and the need for truth in a world of gross falsities will resonant with anyone willing to switch on the news. Denial’s greatest flaw, though, is how forgettable it is.
Given the nature of its topic, this is a weakness which is dangerous to ignore.