An important reminder, in this time of “alternative facts” and “fake news”, that never have we needed reliable, objective research and opinion more. (Review by Patrick Compton - 7)
The Holocaust is an intimidating subject that both sears our psyches and yet is barely capable of being conceived of in all its hateful and complex totality.
Denial, efficiently directed by Mick Jackson and produced by BBC Films, fastens on to a bite-sized part of the subject in the guise of a true courtroom drama involving a maverick historian, David Irving, and an American academic, Deborah Lipstadt.
In 1998, Irving sued Lipstadt and her British publishers, Penguin Books, for calling him a “Holocaust denier” in her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Irving, who claimed there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz and that the Holocaust was a Jewish myth, said he brought the suit because Lipstadt had hurt his reputation as a historian and researcher.
The case was brought by Irving in London which meant that under British law, the burden of proof lay with the defendant rather than the accuser.
To their consternation, Lipstadt and her legal team had to focus on disproving Irving’s argument, or effectively having to prove that the Holocaust existed.
Lipstadt, as played by Rachel Weisz, is an emotional, mouthy historian who is forced to travel to London to link up with Penguin’s large team of lawyers and researchers. The irony of the case is that they decided, for good reason, not to put her on the witness stand or allow Holocaust survivors to testify. As a result, Lipstadt, the movie’s central figure, is rendered a silent witness – at least in court – to the drama that unfolded.
This approach may have worked against the repellent Irving (played by Timothy Spall as a meretricious trickster with an impregnable ego), but it doesn’t help the movie’s dramatic impact. The lack of any real emotional catharsis leaves the film with a frustrating emptiness at its centre.
English playwright David Hare’s script relies meticulously on the official record for the courtroom scenes, but it’s here that the film is least absorbing as Irving is predictably humiliated by Lipstadt’s well-prepared legal team led by attorney Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and advocate Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson).
The most interesting scenes include a fact-finding visit to Auschwitz where a winter fog shrouds the camp and injects a chilling note of sadness and horror. There’s also a fascinating, if frustratingly abbreviated, fund-raising dinner in London where Lipstadt is turned down by potential Jewish donors who urge her to settle out of court.
The only character to really engage us on a personal level is Rampton who enjoys some intimate scenes with Lipstadt around a wine bottle.
If the movie falls fairly flat as a dramatic exercise, it does offer us a valuable history lesson and an important reminder, in this time of “alternative facts” and “fake news”, that never have we needed reliable, objective research and opinion more.
Denial is currently running at Cinema Nouveau, Gateway Mall. – Patrick Compton