The Alternative to Facts
There are timely films, and there are timely films, and then there is Denial, the latest from veteran (though irregular) director Mick Jackson. It seems strange that not too long ago everyone was talking relatively casually about the fact we were all living in a post-truth world: if all I see on the news is true, then suddenly the truth is back in fashion – the problem is that everyone seems to have their own ideas about what it is, and most of those versions are not exactly mutually compatible. Jackson's film may be an account of events from nearly 20 years ago, but that doesn't stop it feeling very relevant, for it concerns the historic (in more ways than one) court case brought by an eminent Holocaust denier against a Jewish female historian.
The late novelist Iain Banks came up with a characteristically witty and effective way of dealing with Holocaust deniers: you invite them to debate the topic on TV with you, then punch them in the mouth in front of the cameras. But it gets even better, for when they complain and call the police, you simply deny the attack ever took place. Ah, if it were only that simple (and satisfying) – taking these people on means stepping onto a hard road fraught with risks, as the film makes clear.
Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish and Holocaust Studies at a university in Atlanta, Georgia, and author of a book about Holocaust denial. She has so far refused to debate with Holocaust deniers on the grounds that she does not want to give them the exposure and credibility that would result, but is nevertheless ambushed at a speaking engagement by the British historian David Irving (Timothy Spall), who accuses her of lying about and defaming him.
Irving eventually brings a libel action against Lipstadt, in a British court where the burden of proof lies with the defendant rather than the ostensibly injured party. Naturally she feels compelled to take him on, rather than settle, and to this end employs hotshot young solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and charismatic barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) to lead her defence. But she is unprepared for some of the arcane details of the British legal system, and also the demands of the case: Irving proves an unexpectedly canny legal operator, and the apparent ruthlessness of the men on her own side is also disquieting. Will truth really be the victor here?
Well, if you don't want to know how it all ends, don't look on Wikipedia, that's all I can say (or David Irving's own more-than-slightly-appalling website, for that matter – for of course it still exists, offering unique insights into modern history, or possibly just its operator's psyche). ‘Based on a true story'-movies are of course notorious for being just that – based on truth, nothing more than that, with events and characters being amalgamated and rearranged to suit the demands of the form. I wonder if this was a factor while Denial was in preparation, for it would be rather odd for a film which is so adamant in its insistence that truth should be held sacred and inviolable to depart too egregiously from reality itself.
And yet you could argue that's just what has happened (and, sure enough, David Irving has been claiming so himself), for Timothy Spall's striking, mannered performance as Irving, while as technically accomplished and memorable as we might expect from such a capable performer, does not seem to even attempt to be a representation of the man himself – one might even call it a theatrical grotesque. On the other hand, one of the themes the film returns to time after time is the need to deny credibility and plausibility to Holocaust deniers, whatever the source – a ‘balanced' representation of the two sides of the argument would give the (entirely wrong) impression that both sides have merit. By presenting Irving as a comprehensively sinister and unpleasant individual, you could therefore probably argue that the film is similarly trying to avoid giving his views even the slightest credence. It's just a bit odd for a film which is about the importance of historical honesty and objectivity to be quite so partial in its representation of a key figure in its story.
Still, Spall does give a very fine performance, in a film which is notably strong in this department – I was about to comment that Rachel Weisz does vanish somewhat behind the hairstyle and accent she adopts, but then again I suppose transforming yourself into another person is the essence of fine acting, and she is notably good in a challenging role. I've never quite seen what all the fuss is about where Andrew Scott is concerned – possibly I've just been put off by all the racket from the Sherlock crowd – but here he is extremely good, too. Best of all, however, is Tom Wilkinson, who more than anyone else brings the film to life and brings some genuine humanity and anger to many scenes. (Also in the cast are John Sessions, who almost appears to be turning into William Shatner as-he-is-today, and Mark Gatiss, giving an impressive and entirely, um, straight turn as a Dutch academic.)
You should never be short on tension if you do a courtroom drama properly, and this film certainly delivers – one of the running themes is the slightly arcane nature of the British legal system, which is helpfully explained for foreign audiences. (Also, you would have thought it would be relatively easy to debunk the deniers, given the numbers of actual Holocaust survivors still around to give evidence, and yet no survivors, nor even Lipstadt herself, testified at the libel trial, and the film makes it very clear just why this was.) But while all this is certainly thrilling stuff, the film never loses track of the fact that it is primarily concerned with the most serious of issues, and there are a number of sequences and scenes which are not afraid to evoke the dreadful reality of what happened at Auschwitz and elsewhere, without ever seeming sentimental or manipulative.
Rampton's courtroom demolition of Irving and his prejudices was so comprehensive that the film struggles to find much in the way of tension for its closing section, as the verdict is awaited, but in a way, this is beside the point. The point it makes is surely not that truth triumphed over deceit on this one occasion, but that truth, justice, and other civilised values must be protected and fought for time and time again. Also, probably, that the existence of the principle of freedom of speech does not mean that truth itself is somehow up for grabs or subject to a popular vote. As I say, a very timely film, probably, and a well-made and very well-acted one.