Denial revolves around an arrogant, immoral man as he stubbornly debates with a woman of superior intellect and influence. Sound familiar? Although it’s based on a story that took place in the late ’90s/early 2000s, this film holds a hypnotic mirror up to today’s America.
In this deeply compelling political commentary, British historian David Irving (Timothy Spall) serves as a stand-in for Donald Trump. Like him, he’s a notorious socialite who’s quick to accuse others of ruining his reputation as he digs his own grave. He demands respect in the midst of spewing racism and misogyny.
The film follows Irving’s libel suit against author and historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), who labeled him a Holocaust denier. We see the infuriating process she had to go through to prove him wrong.
In London, the libel capital of the world, the burden of proof lies on the accused. Therefore, Lipstadt and her legal team not only had to show that Irving was intentionally lying for his own political gain; they had to provide evidence of the fact that the unspeakable evil of the Holocaust actually happened.
The film’s most poignant scene finds Lipstadt and lawyer Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) shivering on the snow-swept, sacred grounds of Auschwitz. They find themselves arguing about the lack of physical proof that gas chambers existed there.
“This isn’t a place where you ask questions,” Lipstadt says, holding back tears. “This is a place where you show respect.” In the deafening silence that follows, the true horror of Irving’s claim comes to light. In that moment, as we stare into the abyss with these characters, we see the monster that Irving is for dismissing such devastation. And we can’t believe that people like him are walking among us and winning the hearts of anyone.
However, like Trump, Irving casts a spell on people. At one point in the trial, one of Lipstadt’s lawyers even says, “He’s kind of riveting, isn’t he? I can’t take my eyes off him.” Spall’s performance is equally magnetic. He seductively reels us in and then pulls the rug out from under our feet to reveal the fiery hell beneath. Spall makes Irving the best kind of villain — the kind you’ll find simultaneously disgusting and fascinating.
If Irving is Trump, Lipstadt is Hillary Clinton, showing remarkable restraint in the face of ignorance and hate. Weisz firmly anchors the film and makes Lipstadt’s frustration our own. It’s a performance of equal fury and grace. It’s rich, sensitive and Oscar-worthy — Weisz’s best performance yet.
Denial doesn’t have much of a visual flair or “atmosphere.” Mick Jackson’s direction is elegant and understated. But this is far from a straightforward courtroom drama. This film perfectly captures the zeitgeist — the shattered spirit of the times. It transports us to another world while showing a raw, piercing reflection of our own. In other words, Denial reminds us why we go to the movies. This is the best film of the year so far.