Director: Mick Jackson / Script: David Hare (from DL’s book) / Editing: Justine Wright / DoP: Haris Zambarloukos / Score: Howard Shore
Cast: Rachel Weisz / Tom Wilkinson / Andrew Scott / Mark Gatiss / Timothy Spall / John Sessions
Reward for my lost TV Movie; last seen entering a cinema…
A curio of a film, Denial covers the infamous libel trial from 2000, in which historian David Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt, Professor of Holocaust Studies at Emory University, Atlanta, over a passage in one of her books, in which she accused him of being a ‘Holocaust denier’.
Impactful stuff, then, so it’s a shame that the resultant film makes such a hash of things. Within such a narrowly-defined genre as ‘courtroom drama’, even acclaimed dramatist David Hare has to spend as long outside the court as within, to avoid getting too ‘stagey’. After all, what is a courtroom if not a kind of stage, on which actors perform to a critically judgmental audience? There are only so many crane-arcs, dramatic cut-aways and close-ups of pens being twiddled that an audience will accept, so Hare mixes things up with glimpses of Lipstadt with her legal team, friends and a representative from a ‘Camp Survivors’ group, who’s limited role is that of a Greek chorus; standing in the wings, keeping Lipstadt honest to her heritage and her obligations to spread the truth and drain the well of its poison.
In her portrayal of Ms. Lipstadt, Rachel Weisz gives a committed portrayal of someone who believes in her gut, that she has no choice but to fight – and win – against Irving. Weisz’s Lipstadt is fearless, righteous and honest. In her corner, there’s a host of support led by an esteemed solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) who had already represented Princess Diana during her divorce. Julius is clearly as passionate and as driven as Lipstadt, but there’s a cool, calculating intellect there, that’s drawn out by Scott, most notably at the pre-trial hearing when he persuades (read: tricks) Irving to accept a trial without jury; this, he knows, would only have given the plaintiff a stage on which to perform to a larger audience. The barrister who will present the case in-court, is Richard Rampton QC (Tom Wilkinson, in one of his best performances). Giving nothing away unless he has to professionally, he’s at pains to spread cheer & bonhomie back in his chambers (a Chancery office that looks unchanged since it was built by Victorians).
Irving, by contrast, elected to represent himself. Whether through financial constraints or simply his monstrous ego I can’t say, but Timothy Spall captures perfectly, the essence of a man so arrogant, blinkered and deluded as to be blind to the effect his words – his apparent belief – have on an entire race. As Lipstadt says in the opening sequence, that the Holocaust occurred – that it’s REAL – is not in doubt. To deny that, is to deny the truth, though even here, Hare echoes a problem that will arise later: that the fastidious German guards forbade any photography of the site whilst operational, so as to frustrate researchers in any future investigation. It’s this argument that Irving uses later.
A Grand-Master of a scriptwriter, Hare begins his key moves, by having Lipstadt’s team chip-away at her demands; not once, but twice. First, they decide not to put survivor-witnesses on the stand, as that would give their opponent the right to question them. Better by far, to focus on his own lies and thus undermine his credibility and potential libel. Second, they decide not to call Lipstadt herself, as a witness in her own defence. As Rampton puts it: “Our task is to starve Irving and putting you in the box would feed him.” On hearing her objections, he counters: “It’s the price you pay for winning.”
Once in-court, Irving plays to the press, questioning the existence of hollow vents in the roof of a gassing chamber, down which canisters of Zyklon-B would’ve been dropped. Court is adjourned before a rebuttal can be made, but when Rampton returns to it the following day, Hare alludes to a level of preparation we hadn’t been privy to. Previous to the trial, Rampton and Lipstadt had visited Auschwitz together, to interview local historians and get ‘the lay of the land’. Rampton had paced the 2.5 miles from the SS barracks to the chamber, much to the annoyance of their hosts. Now it’s clear why: that knowledge demolishes Irving’s claim that the chamber had doubled as a makeshift bomb-shelter: who runs 2.5 miles during an air-raid?
Now a twist: The Judge acknowledges that Irving believes in his anti-semitism – whether it be right or wrong – and that it’s a separate issue to whether he has manipulated data. Rampton refutes this, saying they are connected: “If we know that Mr. Irving is an anti-semite and if we know there is no historical justification for Holocaust denial, then surely it’s no great stretch to see that the two are connected?”
That’s the nub of the case and we’re left on tenterhooks wondering over the outcome – except we’re not, are we? Would they have made this film if she’d lost?
Like I said at the outset, Denial’s a strange mix. Performances are universally great, as one would expect. Key period details are nicely judged (fake internet, aside). Its central premise (that truth is worth fighting for), is as valid today as it was back in 2000; even more so, in this era of ‘fake news’. It’s all laudable.
Except… It feels as if it were made for TV and got a cinema release through little more than a contractual obligation. If this had been a production at The National Theatre, with cinemas selling tickets for a live screening, then I’m sure my experience would’ve been different.
Watching the end result is like taking a strong medicine without a spoonful of sugar to make it easier to swallow. If the direction (by Mick Jackson) appears workmanlike at best, maybe it’s because this is a film less concerned with the denial of the Holocaust, than it is with the intricacies of the British legal system – and that’s not the basis for a theatrical Feature, no matter how worthy the subject.
It’s like having shit on your shoe. You wipe it off. You don’t study it.
Triple Word / Score: Stagey / Muddled / Misfiring / Six