'Denial' review: A compelling case defending Holocaust's horrifying truths
  • Release Date: 11/09/2016
  • Cast: Rachel Weisz,Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall
  • Director: Mick Jackson

“Unearthing History’s Darkest Denials: ‘Denial’ Delivers a Compelling Case Defending the Horrifying Truths of the Holocaust”

For the uninitiated, which I don’t think is a large number, the Holocaust was a period in history during World War II when the Nazis systematically attempted to exterminate the entire Jewish population within their reach in Germany and any other country under their occupation. As many as 6 million or more Jews were killed during this period. The Germans rounded up all the Jews in what they called labour camps in places like Auschwitz and Treblinka and then used deadly gases like cyanide in chambers to kill them. These chambers were later discovered, along with a heap of personal artefacts left behind by the deceased Jews.

Over the years, new evidence has been discovered, and even though the Nazis tried their best to hide all evidence of the extermination, the tales of horror from survivors and the discovery of evidence have shown the full extent of the horrors inflicted upon the Jews by the Nazis during this period. This has become the undeniable cornerstone of Jewish and world history and a grim reminder of the kind of horror that men are capable of inflicting on each other when they have the power to do so.

DENIAL_02205_CROP Timothy Spall stars as Holocaust denier David Irving in DENIAL, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Laurie Sparham / Bleecker Street

Tragically, over the years, there have been a substantial number of individuals who have dedicated their lives to not only portraying Adolf Hitler in a more favourable light but also to deny the Holocaust entirely, attributing it solely to the consequences of a long and tragic war. These individuals not only deny that Hitler had knowledge of and ordered the extermination but also vehemently oppose the existence of death camps. They argue that these were, in fact, labour camps and that the cyanide gas used on the inmates was meant to combat life-threatening diseases carried by flies and was never intended to kill them. When presented with irrefutable evidence, they maintain that any minimal atrocities against the Jews occurred without Hitler’s knowledge and were not as planned and meticulously executed as most historical documents and references suggest.

One of the leading figures passionately dedicated to propagating these horrifying denials was David Irving, an English author known for his writings on the military and political history of World War II, with a specific focus on Nazi Germany. Irving’s reputation as a historian was severely tarnished in 2000 during an unsuccessful libel case, he brought against the American historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books.


High Court Judge Charles Gray, in his ruling, concluded that Irving had intentionally misrepresented historical evidence to promote Holocaust denial and sanitize the actions of the Nazis. This view was shared by many prominent historians. The English court determined that Irving was an active Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, and racist who, for his own ideological reasons, persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence. Additionally, the court found that Irving’s books distorted the history of Hitler’s role in the Holocaust to depict Hitler in a favourable light. Mick Jackson’s simmering courtroom drama, “Denial”, is a film about this very case and everything that led to it, as well as the aftermath of the historical judgment.

I was enthralled by the execution of this film, as the proceedings are tightly compressed and presented in a manner that leaves no room for the audience to breathe or become detached from the central tale. From the moment David Irving (Timothy Spall) picks a fight with Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) to the two of them finally coming face to face in a courtroom, the proceedings are designed to emphasize the frustration and helplessness of Lipstadt. She is appalled at the very necessity of her and a battery of other lawyers having to prove the validity of the events of the Holocaust in the face of a man known to be a Nazi sympathizer.

The fact that questions are asked about the Holocaust and whether or not the Jews faced the horrifying extermination that has never been in question over the years is devastating for her. We see this predicament taking a toll on the character, and this is beautifully portrayed by Rachel Weisz. The sheer tragedy of having to prove the Holocaust after it killed 6 million humans is almost as big a tragedy for her as the holocaust itself, and Weisz skilfully captures every nuance that comes with the territory. She loses her composure, becomes frustrated as people throng to Irving for a signed copy of his book, is devastated when people from her own community fail to stand up for her, and is emotionally shaken when confronted by a survivor who wants to speak in court but she can’t allow it.

DENIAL_07809_R Tom Wilkinson stars as barrister Richard Rampton in DENIAL, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Laurie Sparham / Bleecker Street

All of this is shown building up inside her as the case progresses, and these bottled-up emotions find an escape when, during one argument, her defence lawyer, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) dismantles Irving’s arguments and rebukes him for his uninformed and misplaced views on a matter of historical importance and tragedy.

The character of David Irving, portrayed by Timothy Spall, stands at the other end of the spectrum. In a pivotal moment in the film, the judge in the case questions the defending lawyer, Rampton, about whether Irving genuinely believes in everything he says and whether it’s acceptable to let a man who holds such beliefs (no matter how wrong) exercise his freedom of speech without any control or need for censorship because he trusts in his own judgment and believes it to be true. Even such an ill-informed man is entitled to express his views on a certain matter without censorship. This question lies at the core of Irving’s character, as he is so blinded by his prejudice, anti-Semitism, and belief in racial superiority that he fails to see the truth for what it is.

Throughout the case and the film, we see Irving wholeheartedly embracing the beliefs he expresses, even as he chooses to turn a blind eye to the simple facts presented by Rampton. This ultimately leads to the dismantling of the hopelessly illogical and unnecessary litigation that he initiated against Lipstadt and Penguin, her publisher. There are key moments where we expect the character to utter the unthinkable, but he remains in a state of incomprehensible denial, unable to accept the truth right before his eyes. Spall, a fantastic character actor, brilliantly brings out these nuances of the character in such a subtle manner that it becomes even more impactful and harrowing.

It would be blasphemous if I didn’t applaud Tom Wilkinson for his portrayal of Richard Rampton. He is the heart and soul of the case. He studies it as if his life depended on it and even goes so far as to learn German just to be on the same page as the antagonist. The writing of his character is incredibly strong, and the emotional weight behind it is potent and perfectly balanced. As the film progresses, he essentially steals the limelight and takes centre stage from Rachel Weisz’s Deborah towards the end of the film.

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The character starts off being circumspect, primarily looking at the case from an evidential point of view. However, as he is faced with the enormity of the tragedy the Jews endured in the face of annihilation and the many pieces of evidence that are still left behind, coupled with the tragically little humanity and decency demonstrated by Irving when discussing emotionally disarming topics, Rampton gradually undergoes a transformation. He not only believes in winning the case but also in the cause itself. The insatiable desire to steamroll Irving becomes evident in the way he maintains a straight face while discrediting him, but his hatred and frustration for what the man stands for leak through his mannerisms and dialogue delivery. These aspects of the character are beautifully portrayed by Wilkinson throughout the film, and he does so with a lot of heart and the kind of emotions that can easily resonate with even the most casual moviegoers.

“Denial” is a compelling and thought-provoking courtroom drama that masterfully explores the battle between Holocaust denial and historical truth. Strong performances by the cast and skilled direction make it a powerful and emotionally resonant film, leaving a lasting impact on its viewers. The film’s core strength undoubtedly lies in its performances, but it’s equally undeniable that the inherent impact and shock value of the story, coupled with the skilful direction, make it an utterly riveting experience from start to finish. This combination of elements imbues the film with a compelling power and magic that is impossible to escape.

Rating: 3.5/5 (3.5 out of 5 Stars)

The views expressed in this article are that of the reviewer and do not reflect EastMojo’s position.

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