From a cinematic perspective, there's little in Denial you haven't seen before. Both Mick Jackson's directing and Howard Shore's score are vintage '90s drama, pressing forward with efficiency and relying on quality actors to tell a straightforward tale. No one went into this one trying to reinvent the wheel.
From a storytelling perspective, however, it tackles the Holocaust in a whole new way. Instead of replaying its horrors, it questions whether they even happened at all. Instead of a Nazi, the villain is an aging British man who screams about Hitler but today would yell just as loudly about Mexicans, Brexit, Muslims, and pussy grabbing.
Timothy Spall, in a role imbued with even more power given the last year of blustery election fervor, gets to dive deep and dark as Holocaust denier and self-proclaimed historian David Irving. He first appears accusing Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) of fabricating details in her Holocaust writings; soon after, when she's besmirched his name in print, he formally accuses her of libel in an English court. Because the rule of law in the United Kingdom is essentially "guilty until proven innocent," Lipstadt has to embark on a lengthy case to prove that Irving is indeed the monster he claims not to be.
Her lawyers in this matter are Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott of Sherlock fame) and Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson of everything fame); Julius encourages Lipstadt to stay off the stand and refuses to turn the case into a trial of the survivors, while Rampton's dogged pursuit of valuable evidence comes off as cold and calculating. As a feisty woman determined to win her day with logic and bold proclamations, she can't stand the idea of these two men slow-playing what should be a slam dunk.
In a welcome twist, Lipstadt's instance that the survivors be heard doesn't lead to an emotional moment where near-victims of Hitler's wrath take the stand and sway the judge with their horrific tales. That's how a movie would normally go, especially the legal dramas that Denial seems to be emulating. But Jackson and writer David Hare, either out of respect for the true story or in disregard of typical melodrama, give us lawyers who know how to do their jobs. They walk an intriguing tightrope where Lipstadt is right, just, and heroic, but gradually comes to accept (as we do) that she's a stranger in another country—and a potential liability—who has to let others wear the white hat for now.
Much of this is due to terrific acting across the board. Weisz puts her English accent aside with ease to perfectly inhabit a Jewish historian from New York, flipping between insecurity and deep confidence like its a light switch. Her distrust and then indebtedness to Julius and Rampton is honest and heartfelt, thanks to Scott's smarmy tone and Wilkinson's distant nature emerging from an earned place of intelligence and understanding. And, of course, Spall chews delicious scenery as the hideous Irving. There are moments, when he's being addressed with utter disgust by everyone, where light sympathy bubbles to the surface; it's to Spall's credit that we never doubt why this man deserves every second of scorn.
Denial could've, in theory, focused more on the imperfect nature of both memory and history. As Trump and his supporters are proving on a daily basis, yelling very loudly over and over can distort recollections and even create new identities (hello, Little Marco). This would've been a more interesting and ambitious movie; it also would've distracted from the tale of one very awful man—and his movement—receiving some much-needed just deserts.
Instead, Jackson and his collaborators have dipped into what already works to create a smart, satisfying movie that can only end one way but still leaves you a little uncertain going into the big reveal. It's not something to write home about or shower praise upon, but it's a story worth telling and a film very much worth seeing.