Madeline Copley | 21/04/2017
More legal procedural than heroic tale, Denial pits the agonised self-denial of its protagonist against the histrionic self-promotion of her slimy adversary
A legally accurate dramatisation of the Irving v Penguin Books Ltd libel case, Mick Jackson’s Denial stars Rachel Weisz as Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, sued by David Irving (a smugly self-aggrandising Timothy Spall) for her mercilessly accurate description of him as a Holocaust denier who falsified or deliberately misinterpreted history.
The operation of English libel law is such that Lipstadt and Penguin could not simply rely upon the truth of the Holocaust to defeat Irving’s libel suit. English libel law presumes that all statements are defamatory unless the defendant can adduce evidence to the contrary. Therefore, to win Lipstadt must show that her remarks were justified. In search of a ‘junkyard dog’ of a solicitor, Lipstadt retains Anthony Julius (played by the ever coolly calculating Andrew Scott) to defend her. The clipped voices of Julius’ and his team provide a marked contrast to Lipstadt’s Queens accent – further cementing our view of her as an outsider in an archaic world of wigs, briefs and claret.
Often ponderous, the film’s unhurried pace may have something to do with the complexity of the legal (and factual) issues it seeks to explore. A viewer unfamiliar with the vagaries of English libel law could be forgiven for sympathising with Lipstadt’s impatience. The attitude of the law (and the tone of the film itself) is manifested in Tom Wilkinson’s character, Richard Rampton. A leading Queens Counsel, Rampton coolly ignores Lipstadt’s impassioned charge of lack of feeling. Rampton diligently seeks to distil and digest facts alone, free of the encumbrance of sentiment, a quality Lipstadt comes slowly to appreciate. Indeed, the respect and warmth Lipstadt gradually develops for Wilkinson’s character mirrors her incremental appreciation for the effectiveness of the English legal system.
Faced with Lipstadt’s threat to seek alternative legal representatives who will permit her to testify, Rampton explains that she could ‘stand up, look the devil in the eye…that is very satisfying. And risk losing. Or stay seated, button [her] lip. Win. A real act of self-denial’. Lipstadt’s self-denial (however grudgingly given) provides a startling contrast between her strategy and that pursued by Irving, who (foolishly complacent) insists upon representing himself. Where Irving is declamatory and theatrical, Lipstadt’s legal team are understated and concise. The truth, it would seem, requires none of the theatricality and showmanship of falsehood to be heard.
Denial is understated, the intense emotion of its subject matter muted, a reconnaissance visit by Lipstadt and her legal team to Auschwitz is largely devoid of grim flashbacks. Its refusal to dwell upon the horrors of the Holocaust, is arguably what makes David Hare’s script is hugely effective. Similarly, Rampton and Julius’ refusal to allow Lipstadt (or any Holocaust survivors) to testify may seem counterintuitive; however, as the film unfolds, the eminent wisdom of such a strategy begins to reveal itself.
Indeed, this is not so much a film about the Holocaust and the unimaginable suffering it caused, but a musing upon the nature of truth and the ease with which it may be distorted. The ‘No Holes, No Holocaust’ headline penned by a court reporter during the trial serves as a pithy example of the contagious nature of misinformation. A reminder (as many critics have observed) that is almost uncanny in its timeliness in an age of ‘fake news’.