DENIAL directed by Mick Jackson (UK/USA, 2016)
It is something of a paradox that in our fact check dominated world, liars and cheats continue to flourish.
A quick Google search will expose the most blatant of falsehoods but, as the campaigns of Brexit and Trump have proven, you can win votes simply by repeating lies ad infinitum.
Holocaust denier and credited British historian David Irving was and is a pants on fire specialist but he has never wavered from his position as a Hitler apologist. This film gives a clue as to what motivates him and how he is a potent (and pungent) example of someone who redefines the ‘truth’ to justify his own ends.
The movie is adapted from David Hare’s stage play which was in turn based on Deborah E. Lipstadt’s book ‘History On Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier’.
At its centre is the Irving vs Penguin Books Ltd trial which took place in 2000 at the High Court of Justice in London and gave judgement on Irving’s claim that Lipstadt had made libellous statements against him in her 1993 book ‘Denying The Holocaust’.
Lipstadt is played by Rachel Weisz and, partly by accident but mostly by design, she is presented as an irritatingly outspoken academic with a tendency towards firy, emotional outbursts. The shrillness of her voice and loudness of her protests is in marked contrast to the rational, level-headed responses of her British legal team.
This plays well to a recurring theme of the movie, which is the cultural divide between the US and UK. In one scene her lawyer Richard Rampton (brilliantly played by Tom Wilkinson) is tucking into a fried breakfast in a greasy spoon cafe near the courtroom. He explains to Lipstadt that the black pudding he is eating is made from blood and urges her to try it. She is repulsed and orders a bagel (not toasted) instead.
This divergence in tastes is emblematic of the gulf between the two nations which extends to the intricacies of the legal system. Under British libel law the burden of proof lay with Lipstadt and her publishers. They must prove beyond reasonable doubt that Irving deliberately falsified historical facts.
That Lipstadt has right on her side is obvious yet, as her legal team are at pains to explain, winning the case is dependent on the presentation of factual evidence. Above all, they must show not only that the holocaust happened but that Irving knew it. The systematic destruction of the concentration camp of Auschwitz by the Germans makes it harder to establish the existence of the deadly gas chambers.
Irving may have taken an eccentrically misguided path in his research but he is at heart an old school academic and at home dealing with the stiff upper lip stance of the British establishment. Since this is an environmental where the head rules the heart, Lipstadt’s emotional outbursts are recognised as potentially counterproductive.
The unclubbable American professor is therefore forced against her will to spend the trial in silence while barrister Rampton speaks for her. “The book is your voice”, sweet talks her solicitor advocate Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott). Through a combination of flattery and manipulation she is made to change a habit of a lifetime and keep her mouth shut.
The high points of the movie are the interchanges between Rampton and Irving. Timothy Spall perfectly encapsulates the charismatic deviousness of Irving while, in between the two, Alex Jennings as the dispassionate judge Sir Charles Gray provides the perfect deadpan foil.
The performances make for good drama but director Mick Jackson renders the story in such a dry and predictable manner that the cinematic pleasures are few and far between. Not for the first time, what works brilliantly in the theatre falls flat on screen. There are feeble attempts to create tension but since the outcome of the trial is a forgone conclusion there is no real suspense.
By the end, Lipstadt is such an irritating character that I almost felt more sympathy for Irving. And, unwittingly, the film touches upon how and why right-wing firebrands like Nigel Farage, Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump continue to wield power and influence. Like Irving, their actions and opinions are deplorable but the degree to which they cling to politically (and morally) indefensible positions nevertheless holds a fatal fascination.
If it were more ambitious, Denial could have tackled some of these very topical issues instead of being just another worthy and disappointingly dull movie.