Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall
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“…the court hearings are almost unbelievable and yet are lifted, verbatim, from the records…”
It’s hard not to draw parallels between our current social climate and the circumstances of Mick Jackson’s superb Denial; it is now more timely in this post-truth climate than possibly any of the cast and crew likely realised whilst making it. The story centres around the Irving v Penguin Books Ltd trial, which saw David Irving (Timothy Spall), a prominent British historian and Holocaust denier, sue Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), a Holocaust and Jewish historian, for libel (publishing a false statement to tarnish another’s reputation) over her novel Denying the Holocaust in the late ‘90s. Deborah, the heroin of this story, decides to fight him in court, meaning they must not only prove that David Irving is a liar, but that the holocaust did, indeed, happen.
Throughout the film, Irving refers to the case as a modern David and Goliath story, Irving being David in his allusion as he represents himself, but it is perhaps more fitting to see the real David and Goliath battle between truth and lies. Because the case falls under the British courts, it turns out that Lipstadt is guilty until proven innocent, so she is left with two options: settle with Irving outside of court, legitimising his claims, or fight him. Knowing the severity of what legitimising a holocaust denier would mean, she chooses to fight.
One of the most spectacular aspects of the film are the court hearings as they are simultaneously almost unbelievable and yet lifted, verbatim, from the records. Timothy Spall and Rachel Weisz shine in their respective roles, Spall highlighting the seductive and manipulative quality of many pathological liars and Weisz delving into Lipstadt’s inner struggles during the case – and she has plenty to struggle with throughout the film. Beyond the weight of the legitimacy of the Holocaust resting upon her shoulders, her legal team decide that putting Holocaust survivors on the stand, and giving Irving free will to interrogate and delegitimise their traumas would be unethical. For Lipstadt, though, it means those who suffered won’t have a voice.
A particularly stirring moment comes when Lipstadt goes with her barrister, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) to Auschwitz. It is the focal point of the case, because it was the heart of the Jewish liquidation in WWII. Lipstadt, being Jewish, is brought to tears when she stands upon the demolished roof of a gas chamber. Her barrister, however, is clinical. He wants the facts so they can win. At dinner, they clash heads. She calls him heartless and he says has to find the facts or Irving wins. This is the real battle of Denial. Even though you may sometimes feel you are one-hundred-percent on the side of right, you have to be able to back that up, to argue your point. Only then can you stand tall. This is the trouble for Lipstadt and so many of us in our contemporary times. Even though what we believe may feel true, or downright obvious, we must have the proof to back up what we believe. It’s a dilemma the film deals with brilliantly throughout.
But that also leads to the only criticism – the film suggests that, no matter what the outcome of the trial, Irving will always believe what he preaches. It is entrenched in his bones. And it is easy to understand where dogmatism comes from, but how people like Irving come to exist in the first place is less clear. The film does not seem interested in that question and Irving is ultimately mitigated to the role of an outlier to general society, and the film does little to develop or understand Irving and that remains a wasted opportunity in an otherwise great film.