Why do people deny that the Holocaust happened?

This has long been a question of mine. Denying the historical fact of the Holocaust is a ridiculous thing to do, but even the most unprecedented of arguments have an underlying explanation that reveal a bit of motive. Denial explores that motive in a fascinating historical drama — one that’s handled clumsily, but fascinating nonetheless.

The film revolves around Deborah Lipstadt, a real-life writer and Jewish History Professor who finds herself locked in a legal battle with a famous Holocaust denier in the late 90s. The revisionist historian, smooth-talking Englishman David Irving, accuses Lipstadt of libel after she condemns his anti-Semitism and glorification of Hitler in her new book. She has to face Irving in British court, which presents a particular problem: in England the defendant must prove that their statements were not libel, rather than the plaintiff bearing the burden of proof.

Therefore Lipstadt must convince the judge that Irving is objectively wrong — essentially proving in court that the Holocaust happened.

This subject is intriguing by nature. We get to dig into the mind of a Holocaust denier and watch a portrayal of the incisive Lipstadt demonstrate the importance of staring straight into historical horror. Denial could have been a camera pointed at a read-through of the screenplay and it still would have been riveting.

But this is a historical drama, so director Mick Jackson — a filmmaker who’s managed to direct a bad movie in multiple genres — sets about to inject extra drama into the history. At the beginning of the film, David Irving hijacks one of Deborah Lipstadt’s lectures and the denier’s cohorts videotape the resulting argument as melodramatically as possible in order to give Irving good press. Denial feels like that.

It’s expected to add drama to this genre, but Jackson just isn’t very good at it. Oftentimes he undercuts his own tension through soundtrack choices that either are terribly timed or involve unfortunate song choice. On other occasions, sinking a story about the Holocaust in supplementary drama is borderline offensive. Cutting to a sudden shot of people screaming in a gas chamber might not be a safe idea during a courtroom scene.

The editing choices are equally distracting. Transitions between scenes and bizarrely angled shots fail to make an avant-garde impression: they’re only jarring.

Thankfully, the screenplay and performances make a compelling case for Denial. The dialogue — courtesy of accomplished English playwright Sir David Hare — is terrific. Conversations between Lipstadt and her lawyer team, lengthy courtroom debates, and impassioned speeches from Holocaust survivors all hit a sweet spot. Denial’s dialogue walks a line between authentic banter and well-written lines that allows it to feel both natural and theatrical.

The screenplay’s running theme of the assumed dichotomy between cold rationality and emotional motivation is strong as well. Hare has a point to make about how we view history and attentive viewers will likely find value in it.

Rachel Weisz disappears comfortably into the role of Deborah Lipstadt, giving us a rare mix of strength and restraint of that very quality. She emotes well with her eyes, which is more than welcome alongside Tom Wilkinson’s physical prowess. The best performance is easily Timothy Spall’s (that’s Peter Pettigrew, Harry Potter fans) as David Irving though: he’s a charming and human menace despite all his smugness. The best villains are the ones we have to stop ourselves from appreciating.

To the director’s credit, when the film slows down for a trip to Auschwitz, it takes on a powerful visage. Denial adequately captures the Lipstadt/Irving trial, but it perfectly captures the sullen reverence of standing in Auschwitz — and that is undeniable.

★★★½   (3.5 out of 5)