THIS IS AN absorbing, highly relevant, brilliantly well-acted movie about Holocaust denial. The story (from her book, “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial”) pits the American historian, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz affecting a very credible Jewish American – Queens – accent) against Holocaust denier and bogus academic, David Irving. (Timothy Spall; as usual, outstanding… as a showy, media savvy, cunningly intelligent populist). It’s the battle between fact and the denial of fact (or, in Trump-speak, “alternative fact”).
Not too long ago (about fifteen years or so), Irving sued Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books. His suit claimed that Lipstadt’s book, “Denying the Holocaust” (in which she called out Irving’s pro-Hitler, Holocaust denials as bogus academia, distorted history and anti Semitic lies) defamed his integrity and maliciously caused his loss of reputation. The suit was lodged in the U.K. courts, which unlike the USA courts, demand that the defendant (there not “innocent until proven guilty”) prove the plaintiff wrong. In other words, Lipstadt, who until then had refused to debate the actuality of the Holocaust with its deniers (As she notes in one of her lectures, “I also won’t debate that Elvis still lives”), was forced to prove Irving wrong…forced to prove that the Holocaust did actually exist.
The movie makes clear that the price of her failure to do so would open the door to Nazi sympathizers and deniers everywhere. To those survivors still alive and their families, it would be a tragedy.
English playwright and “Denial’s” writer, David Hare, no doubt overly cautious of not simply penning a polemic, lays out the story in classic courtroom drama style. He charts the twists and turns of the court case…in particular, he emphasizes the strategy developed by Lipstadt and Penguin’s two ferociously intelligent, arrogant, no-nonsense lawyers: solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott…the devious civil servant and Bond’s nemesis in “Spectre”) and his barrister, Richard Rampton (Tom WIlkinson). The strategy they chose, was to deny Irving the grandstanding oxygen of the public gallery by hearing the case in front of a judge, not a jury. And their tactic was to focus not on the actuality or not of the Holocaust (much to the chagrin of Lipstadt) but on the deliberateness of the deception; that Irving willfully lied and willfully distorted the facts of history to suit his own racist agenda.
The focus was on the nature of and the intent behind the act of denial.
Director Mick Jackson (“The Bodyguard”) and writer Hare build the movie as meticulously as they would a case. They balance the private dramas of a testy Lipstadt (whose relationship with her legal team was often fraught, distrusting, and confrontational ) and the arcane intricacies of the law.
Weisz is outstanding. She’s a very subtle actor; and even though her character is quite the showman (as you’d expect of many a great presenter), it’s in her almost imperceptible facial twitches where she manages to communicate such an array of emotions. For she is the story: the heartfelt sense of loss and agony, the fierce determination to resist and win, the public persona of defiance, the private tremble of doubt and anxiety…they belong both to the person and to the history she represents.
But in the end, though thoroughly enjoyable, the movie feels constrained within an imagined Proscenium. It remains too faithful to its historical topic. It’s about Holocaust denial, not the (so achingly immediate) pathology of denial. The alt-right have successfully managed to conflate facts with opinions; so the denial of fact is presented simply as a difference of opinion. Indeed, if it’s one conversation this movie has stimulated (OK, it’s only a conversation with myself) it’s the link between the denial of the Holocaust (essentially rooted in anti Semitism and, as the movie suggests, its close family: racism and misogyny) and the denial of Climate change (rooted in the fake -Fox-news campaigns of the profit threatened oil industry).
Certainly the role of denial, once the harmless tactic of cheating spouses (and now that we have a denier in chief running the US) has gained a new, and much more sinister twist. No wonder Irving, whose career was ruined after he lost his case, is back in the limelight. We’re thirty-three years after 1984…and doublespeak, never quite gone from political discourse is baaaaack with a vengeance.
It will simply not be denied
DENIAL. With: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott. Dir: Mick Jackson. Writer: David Hare. Cinematorgrpher: Haris Zambarloukos (“Eye in the Sky”)