Denial recounts the true-life episode in the life of Dr. Deborah Lipstad, a renowned historian who currently works at Emory University. In 2000, pop-historian David Irving brought a libel suit against Dr. Lipstad in England for things she wrote in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Mr. Irving denies that the Holocaust ever happened. Had Mr. Irving won the case, Holocaust deniers would have gained a measure of respectability in contemporary society. It would have been as if the English court decreed that it was at least possible that he Holocaust never happened. Of course, Dr. Lipstad won the case.
Denial wades in the muddy wash where freedom of speech mixes with prejudice and offense. Do we have the right to say whatever we want even if what we say offends someone else? An individual can justify just about anything, so how do we determine what society allows to be justifiable? What about decency? What about academic inquiry? Can those academic inquiry and decency be in conflict with one another? If so, how do we arbitrate between them?
Denial navigates these murky waters by putting every other issue subordinate to the truth, trusting the truth to be more resilient than lies, and trusting our legal system to be trustworthy at sussing out the truth. Denial’s truth, conspicuously, isn’t rooted in anecdotal evidence or scientific and historical fact alone. It’s rooted in those things working in concert with a justice-oriented judiciary. If all it takes for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing, as the popular proverb (commonly attributed to Edmund Burke, though the attribution is suspect) states, then Denial shows what happens when good men and women do something. Dr. Lipstad’s vindication is the result of the cooperative effort of people of all faiths striving together to oppose evil. That’s what our contemporary, democratic judicial system is in its best moments. Rachel Weisz’s “Dr. Lipstad” has to endure the trial in silence, a emblem of the trust we have to have in each other and out communal efforts for justice in our world.
Though Denial’s outcome is known, the film does an apt job keeping our interest throughout its story. It does this by showing the efforts and resolve of many people involved in defending Dr. Lipstad. Everyone has a reason for working this case, and though their inclinations aren’t identical, they put them all toward defeating a common enemy. Tom Wilkinson’s “Richard Rampton” is particularly compelling. A Gentile, he dives deeper than anyone into the facts of the Holocaust and bears the burden for the millions of Jewish victims and survivors whose honor depends on his efforts. It wears on him, and Wilkinson wears the weariness like a coat.
Speaking of coats, who wears a coat and when and what that coat looks like is an interesting touchstone throughout the film. What do coats denote in Denial? I’ll leave that little mystery for you to figure out.
Film critics use the term “middlebrow” to refer to films like Denial, meaning the film requires only a moderate amount of intellectual effort to decode because it does not veer from convention. The term is derisive. It ought not be. Every film need not be highbrow. Every film need not be lowbrow either. There is room for all. And Denial is concerned with an issue that is essential for the right functioning of society, so it ought to encourage thoughtfulness from its audience while also being comprehensible. It ought to be intelligent and conventional—middlebrow—so that we are all encouraged to consider its ideas. Denial is engaging entertainment for the engaged citizen, and it’s playing in a theater near you.