Denial

DENIAL. Starring: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, and Alex Jennings. Directed by Mick Jackson. Rated M (Occasional coarse language). 110 min.

This American-British drama is based on the book, "History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier" written by Deborah Lipstadt. Filmed on location in Kraków, Poland, and London, it dramatises the case in which an American Professor of Holocaust Studies, Deborah Lipstadt, was sued by British historian, David Irving.The movie was nominated as "Best Film" in the 2017 British Academy Film Awards.

Irving filed a lawsuit in the UK against Lipstadt and her publisher (Penguin Books) when Lipstadt (Rachael Weisz) described Irving (Timothy Spall) as a Holocaust-denier in her published work. In the English legal system, the burden of proof is on the accused, not the complainant. Lipstadt's legal team set out to prove that Irving lied about the Holocaust. It won. The dialogue in the courtroom scenes was taken verbatim from actual court records, and Irving defended himself.

In the film, the courtroom drama is presented tensely, and it moves in the last hour to a powerful climax, as the libel suit is presented as a test case for freedom of speech. Irving's statements might be racist and anti-Semitic, but Lipstad's barrister, Richard Rampton, set out to prove to the judge that Irving was not honest in believing what he said, and that Irving "deliberately" lied.

The viewer cannot help but marvel about how time-consuming legal processes can be, particularly since the world now flirts so eagerly with concepts like "alternative facts", and "fake news". Given contemporary political events, and the fact that these concepts are so much a part of modern dialogue and debate, the film has obvious current relevance. Acting in the film is uniformly good. On the legal side, Andrew Scott plays Lipstadt's solicitor, Tom Wilkinson plays her barrister, and Alex Jennings plays Sir Charles Gray, the trial judge. The acting of Weisz and Wilkinson is particularly good.

The film interestingly explores a number of relevant issues. Lipstadt is never brought to the stand because engagement between a female, Jewish academic, and a male historian-provocateur, was judged by Lipstad's legal team to be what Irving most expected would happen. Survivors of the Holocaust were also denied the chance to appear for fear they would be personally and publicly belittled and humiliated. In the middle of the trial, the film depicts a visit to Auschwitz which is emotionally very moving. Mostly, however, the movie focuses on factual court proceedings, and it treats the emotional issues surrounding the Holocaust in a formal, disciplined way, which distracts a little from the impact of the film as a whole.

The movie begs the question of why Irving decided to sue Lipstadt and her publisher in the first place? Was it a pathological desire on Irving's part to grab attention, or did he genuinely want to put the validity of the Holocaust on trial? Further, the movie chooses to avoid the issue of whether long drawn-out court proceedings (for more than 32 days, in this instance) give undue credibility to a complainant. The semi-documentary nature of the movie tends to restrain the emotional force of the Holocaust, but the film's legal challenges are highly absorbing: "what feels best is not necessarily what works best", and winning was judged to be "an act of self-denial". Winning for Lipstadt and the survivors of the Holocaust carried an emotional price.

This is a movie that takes a seemingly impossible cause, like the denial of the Holocaust, and builds compelling legal drama around it. The result is an informative and impressive account of legal proceedings associated with a controversial trial that happened seventeen years ago. The film is not an emotionally gripping account of the tragedy of the Holocaust, but it has strong dramatic force - especially in its fascinating legal examination of freedom of speech.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Entertainment One Films

Released April 13th., 2017


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