Friday, October 14, 2016

Denial: Profound courtroom drama

Denial (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, disturbing images and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

This film fascinates in all sorts of ways.

Most notably — and, obviously, the reason it was made — director Mick Jackson’s absorbing, rigorously faithful drama shines a necessary spotlight on longtime Holocaust denier David Irving, and the shameful lengths to which he went, in an effort to legitimize his odious beliefs.

As Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) watches nervously, QC Richard Rampton (Tom
Wilkinson, standing) prepares to address another of sham historian David Irving's
deplorable claims.
American viewers — at least, those who didn’t devour the escapades of John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey — will be equally intrigued, possibly even astonished, by this film’s well-crafted depiction of the British legal system, and specifically how it differs from the U.S. court system, with respect to libel suits.

Most impressively, though, scripter David Hare — adapting historian Deborah E. Lipstadt’s memoir, Denial: Holocaust History on Trial — has crafted a parallel dilemma that focuses on Lipstadt herself, played superbly here by Rachel Weisz. Lipstadt’s struggle to remain true to her own conscience and principles, and her reluctant recognition that she must — simply must — have faith in others, is just as compelling as the courtroom duel that dominates the film’s second half.

The title, therefore, is deliberately double-barreled: As well as signifying Irving’s standing as an unrepentant Holocaust denier, it also represents the tremendously difficult choice that must be made by the passionate, fiery and independent Lipstadt, to swallow her pride and deny a public outlet for her own righteous indignation.

We know the legal outcome; it’s obvious — given Hare’s source material — even for viewers who didn’t follow the case, while it unfolded during the final four years of the 20th century. But few outside of Lipstadt’s friends and inner circle would have known how this case affected her on a personal level; Hare and Weisz give us an intimate and thoroughly absorbing view of how Lipstadt faced this challenge, and — with the help of a superb legal team — ultimately triumphed.

The case began with a whisper in 1993, with the publication of Lipstadt’s book, Denying the Holocaust. She acknowledged Irving within those pages, briefly but trenchantly, labeling him a Holocaust denier, a racist, and a falsifier of history.

(It’s important to understand that although Irving’s charitable views of Hitler and Nazism never were taken seriously by mainstream historians, he was a tireless writer, having published more than two dozen books. Regardless of how he was regarded by the world, Irving viewed himself as a serious academic and valid historian.)

Nothing happened until Penguin Books published a British edition of Lipstadt’s book, after which — on Sept. 5, 1996 — Irving filed a libel suit against both Lipstadt and Penguin. He rejected the notion that he was a “Nazi apologist,” and insisted that her book cast doubt on his competence, and therefore was designed to ruin his reputation as a authoritative historian.

Tellingly, he didn’t back away from the accusation that he denied the existence of the Holocaust; indeed, he remained steadfast in this belief, insisting that there was no physical proof that such a mass slaughter ever had taken place.

Irving obviously waited for the British publication of Lipstadt’s book, because it allowed him to file suit in England. As Lipstadt soon comes to understand — Weisz persuasively displaying both disbelief and outrage — the situation is not in her favor. In the States, the burden would have been on Irving, to prove that his “interpretation” of history was valid, in order to demonstrate that Lipstadt was guilty of deliberate character assassination.

Ah, but in England the burden of proof is on Lipstadt: She must, in effect, prove that the Holocaust did take place, and that Irving intentionally disputes this. As we viewers come to realize, during the course of this film, knowing something can be vastly different than being able to prove it. Eyewitness testimony never carries as much weight as physical evidence, and the Nazis were very methodical in their efforts to eradicate all buildings and support systems involved with the mass extermination of Jewish prisoners.

On top of which, the stakes are tremendous. If Lipstadt loses — and she’s advised, by numerous individuals, to avoid granting Irving this very public forum — then the result would be unthinkable: Holocaust denial would be legitimized as an acceptable alternate viewpoint. (Here in the States, it would be akin to a lawsuit that granted creationism equal status as an acceptable theory in public school science classes.)

The case quickly becomes both intriguing and infuriating. It’s also driven by a captivating roster of characters, all of them well played by an excellent ensemble cast.

Although this clearly is Lipstadt’s story, and Weisz’s performance has our hearts and minds, there’s no denying the charismatic power of Timothy Spall’s interpretation of Irving. Spall gives the man a Nixon-esque sneer that never wavers, except when Irving plays to a crowd, or to his thuggish acolytes; then he’s all smiles and malevolent charm.

Spall makes it clear that Irving is intelligent, if defiantly dogmatic. But he’s also ferociously proud and smug, and herein lies the beautiful subtlety of Spall’s performance. There’s a telling moment, during a pre-trial conference with a judge, when Lipstadt’s team must maneuver a stratagem by subtly appealing to Irving’s vanity. Watching Spall’s face, as he digests and finally responds to this plot, is a thing of sublime thespic beauty.

Tom Wilkinson is equally fine, albeit in a more understated manner, as QC Richard Rampton, the barrister hired to represent Lipstadt in court. He’s the calm and methodical yin to Lipstadt’s hard-charging and righteously indignant yang: a quiet planner who — as we eventually discover, via Wilkinson’s nuanced performance — is just as outraged by the very existence of this lawsuit. Even so, his strategy is crafted on the basis of winning on points, rather than trying for a flamboyant knock-out.

Wilkinson makes him more Atticus Finch than Perry Mason, which heightens the contrast between Rampton’s courtroom manner, and that of Irving (who, in one of his foolishly inflated decisions, chooses to represent himself).

Lipstadt’s primary solicitor, Anthony Julius, is played with a marvelous blend of razor-sharp intellect and thin-lipped pragmatism by Andrew Scott. The Irish actor is best known (on these shores) as the gleeful villains who bedevil Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, so this role is quite a switch. Scott’s Julius radiates assurance, at times insufferably so, and he frequently clashes with Lipstadt over issues involving courtroom strategy.

But the key point is that Julius truly does know best, and Scott never lets us doubt that for a second.

Jackie Clune makes the most of her small supporting role as Rampton’s junior counsel, Heather Rogers; she’s essentially our surrogate, experiencing and being transformed by this case, as it develops. (The trial didn’t begin until Jan. 11, 2000, and it lasted 32 days. The judgment wasn’t presented until April 11.)

John Sessions and Mark Gatiss both shine as two of Lipstadt’s expert witnesses: Cambridge University historian Richard Evans and Dutch architectural expert Robert Jan van der Pelt.

Weisz’s passion drives the narrative; we share Lipstadt’s agony over each procedural indignity, and her growing apprehension regarding a system that seems weighted in Irving’s favor. Lipstadt also carries the responsibility of her own Jewish heritage, and deep feelings toward to the Holocaust survivors who attend the trial, and wish their own opportunity to address Irving’s offensive claims.

Weisz also is adept with Hare’s well-chosen one-liners. She raises a smile, early on, when Lipstadt expresses willingness to accept that the British legal system might be Dickensian, as long as it doesn’t become Kafka-esque. (Spoken like a true academic.)

The story’s destination may be recognized, but the suspense comes with Hare’s clever construction of the journey: We’re eager to watch how Irving gets bested. The accurate little details that Hare includes — such as the fact that Rampton makes a point of refusing to look Irving in the eye, during cross-examination — are fascinating.

Be advised: Although Jackson never dwells on Holocaust specifics, there’s no denying the highly disturbing intensity of the on-site visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the memories thus evoked.

One small complaint: A factual story such as this demands a few concluding text blocks, to let us know where these people are now. Irving’s appeal of the decision was denied, and he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2002. And while his pretense of scholarly legitimacy remains shattered, it hasn’t minimized his activities; visitors to his Web site still are assured of getting “Real History!”

Lipstadt wrote the book on which this film is based, of course, and followed it in 2011 with The Eichmann Trial. She’s currently the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. And an occasional film adviser.

Denial is a gripping drama, both in the courtroom and behind the scenes. It’s also a potent reminder — particularly at this moment, in this country — that some battles demand to be fought, and that pugnacious bullies cannot be allowed to prevail.

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