There are points in time when free speech, facts, passion and history collide. It happened in real life to Deborah Esther Lipstadt, an American historian and lecturer who holds a Ph.D. in Jewish History. Her personal and professional challenge stems from an entanglement in a British libel trial involving the history of the Holocaust and is the basis for Denial, an absolutely riveting, international courtroom drama.
Lipstadt authored a book titled Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. In it, she pointed out that the English author David Irving, who deemed himself an expert on World War II, was a Holocaust denier and factually wrong in his assertions. He sued her and what followed in 1996 altered the discourse from opposing sides of the issue. Can history be retold or revised by those who prefer opinion to fact?
David Irving (Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner) sues Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardner) for libel for besmirching his reputation. Unbeknownst to her, under U.K. law, which differs from American law, she is presumed guilty not innocent. The onus is on her to prove that she is right and he is wrong. She is reluctant to give Irving a platform for his revisionist theories or a chance to manipulate the media during what will be a highly visible trial. On the other hand, settling the case out of court, would give him a victory she can’t abide.
And so the academic goes to London. She is represented by a solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott, Spectre) who will research her case, and a barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson, Belle) who will be her courtroom advocate. There will be no jury. Just one judge. Just one outcome.
At the center of this thought-provoking film is the issue of people who deny one of the world’s worst tragedies and whether or not they should get away with their public declarations. The essence of their argument is based on a few basic claims: Since there are no photographs or footage of Jewish people entering cremation ovens, none were ever killed by the Germans. Five to six million Jewish deaths is an irresponsible exaggeration. No gas chambers ever existed, those buildings were constructed for delousing.
The premise is shocking and cautionary. The distortion of history and facts is not a just problem of the past, as anyone who is perturbed by the Birther movement can attest. So in many ways the general subject of this film is historical and timely all at once. Also fascinating is the decision by Lipstadt’s legal team to not let her testify, do much press, or call a Holocaust survivor to the witness stand.
The British judicial system is so different from the American one that audiences should be fascinated by the proceedings just on cultural difference alone. This is a battle of intellect. With do respect to Perry Mason, L.A. Law, Law & Order and The Good Wife, there is no preparation for what will unfold.
Translating Lipstadt’s revealing autobiographical book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier into a viable screenplay was the task of David Hare, the English playwright (Plenty), screenwriter (The Hours) and film director (Wetherby). His script breathes life into real characters, displays their indomitable spirit (Lipstadt), their lapses in judgment (Irving) and their eagerness to win a case based less on emotion and more on facts (the legal team).
And yet somehow within those parameters, Hare must evoke a horrific event that happened more than 70 years ago but still touches raw emotions today. When Lipstadt tells her legal team that a Holocaust survivor must testify, and they decline her request, she forcefully bolsters her argument: “They don’t want to testify for themselves, but for the dead.”
At first thought, Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard, Clean Slate) is not who comes to mind as the perfect director for a subject this serious. However surprisingly, his guidance is excellent every step of the way, from opening scenes in a classroom when Irving verbally blindsides Lipstadt, to behind-the-scenes preparations for the case, to the actual courtroom sequences which are so tense you could hear a pin drop, except when Rampton is shredding the denier’s key arguments. Everything is perfectly orchestrated.
Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for The Constant Gardener, Rachel Weisz has had plenty of roles, most recently in the romantic drama The Light Between Oceans. All her performances are heartfelt, but this role will hit a nerve with Oscar and Golden Globe voters. Her interpretation of the feisty, knowledgeable professor/author is electric. Audiences will pin their hopes for a positive outcome on her portrayal.
Wilkinson and Scott, as almost cold but smart advocates, lack the fiery emotions Weisz displays, yet their characters are intense in other ways and certainly pivotal. The eeriest performance comes from Timothy Spall as the man who manipulates facts to his advantage. There is something so smarmy, calculating and race baiting about his character that he may remind audiences of several modern day charlatans. Spall neither overplays nor underplays the sneaky, sniveling Irving. He cooks his performance just about right.
Most of the technical credits are a perfect: Justine Wright (The Last King of Scotland) edits what must have been days and days of research and testimony down to a succinct 1hr 50mins. When academic moments or mood shifts need a flourish, composer Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) finds a melody that brings the right intensity. Haris Zambarloukos’ (Eye in the Sky) cinematography is equally deft at courtroom interiors and poignant exterior scenes of Auschwitz. If there is a flaw, it’s the odd-looking and distracting wig that Weisz wears that looks nothing like the dome of the real Lipstadt.
Proving that Irving got facts wrong on purpose and deliberately falsified evidence for his own gain is the driving force in this tight and tense drama. Finding out what happens to people who do such a thing will be more than enough reason for audiences to be glued to this informative movie right up until the final credits.
Worthy premise. Excellent production. Magnetic performances. Oscar caliber in every way.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.