“More women died on the backseat of Senator Kennedy’s car in Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.”
Like many, these words shocked and disgusted me when I heard them. It would seem unreal that anyone could have said them aloud in public. Yet the 90’s saw ‘historian’ David Irving pronounce them shamelessly, claiming that Hitler was actually the Jews “best friend”. As would be expected, he was met with angry protests from different members of society, particularly from historian Deborah Lipstadt in her novel “Denying the Holocaust”, where she labelled him as a Holocaust denier who distorted the truth to fit his own personal needs.
Irving, outraged by the defamation of his name, sued Lipstadt for libel, just as he had sued historians Gitta Sereny and John Lukacs, although neither case made it to court. Lipstadt, however, was not prepared to stand down and so proceeded to defend her accusations in court. Winning this case would not only save Lipstadt’s reputation as a historian, but would defend the Holocaust’s victims right to be remembered. There were greater things at stake here than the financial cost of losing the lawsuit.
Mick Jackson’s new film, Denial, dramatizes the real-life events of the legal dispute between Irving (Timothy Spall) and Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), recreating the moments from Irving and Lipstadt’s first encounter to the judge’s final decision. The film centres around Lipstadt as she prepares the case with her team of lawyers, led by Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), who refuse to let the loud New Yorker speak her mind in court.
It is a frustrating process, as it is her book that is under scrutiny. Lipstadt is, after all, the central character yet she is not allowed to speak in the key moments. However, thanks to David Hare’s artful screenplay, as well as Weisz’s talent, we are able hear Lipstadt’s silent irritation in the courtroom as the camera focuses on her agitated face, bursting with protests that cannot be verbally expressed. Here, Weisz’s skill as an actress shines not so much because of what she says, but rather because of what she doesn’t say.
As to the structure of the film, I could not disagree more with The New York Times’ Stephen Holden’s comment that the film “leaves a frustrating emptiness at its center” and that “the creators could have found some compelling drama in the characters’ personal lives”. The fact that the film refuses to indulge in their personal lives shows the extent to which the trial took over their lives.
Their identities were defined by this trial: Lipstadt’s view of herself as a member of the Jewish community depended on the success of this trial, whilst Irving’s reputation among England’s educated elites was at stake. As a result, the trial becomes synonymous with the characters’ personal lives, therefore putting more weight on the judge’s final decision.
Furthermore, to present a subplot of personal dramas would be to cheapen the main issue of the plot which was essentially the memory and the act of remembering the Holocaust. If I wanted to see strained romances or family disputes, there were many other cinema rooms I could have gone to. Yet by going to see Denial, I expected to watch a journalistic film about history, justice and memory, all of which was successfully delivered by director Mick Jackson.
When I came out of the cinema, there was no feeling of “frustrated emptiness”, but rather a sense of hope. A sense of hope because Denial reminds its viewers to be critical of the ‘truths’ they are told by politicians and historians. Distorted facts are not rare in the news nowadays, therefore it comes as breath of fresh air to see one of these falsifiers be condemned for his actions.