Ann Field reviews Denial, now on general release:
Denial is a dramatisation of the libel case brought by Holocaust denier and Hitler apologist David Irving against the American academic Deborah Lipstadt (author of Denying the Holocaust, in which Irving featured prominently) and Penguin Books (which published her book).
The film has received mixed reviews. Some critics have described it as “hammy”, “stuffy and repetitive”, and “a standard issue legal drama”. The character of Lipstadt has also been criticised as “so predictable” and “an impassioned mouthpiece with no internal life.” And given the well-known result of the real-life trial — in 2000 a High Court judge found that Irving had knowingly distorted history and ruled in favour of Lipstadt and Penguin Books — the eventual outcome of the trial is not a source of tension in the film.
But the film is well worth seeing. Irving is such a truly repulsive character, and the contrast between him and Lipstadt so absolute, that the audience can only enjoy the wait for Irving’s eventual defeat in court, and then relish the moment of his demise Irving does not look at people. He leers and scowls at them. When he speaks, his face twists into a grimace. He is full of his own bloated self-importance, but fawning and sycophantic towards the judge in court.
During the film Lipstadt and her legal team watch clips of Irving addressing neo-Nazi rallies, making racist “jokes”, and denying the genocide of the Holocaust. The cheap and grainy quality of the clips helps emphasise the tawdry and seedy nature of the character they show. Irving also excels in a poisonous anti-semitism-by-innuendo. “Who pays you to write your books?” asks Irvine when he “ambushes” Lipstadt in a lecture at the start of the film.
According to his libel claim, Lipstadt is “part of a world conspiracy to destroy his reputation.” And in one of the court scenes he refers to “those who funded her (Lipstadt) and guided her hand.” But, for all his bravado, Irving is also a pathetic figure. As Lipstadt’s barrister points out, Irving wants to be seen as a great writer and historian and hankers after respect — “England is a club and he wants to be a member of it.” That makes Irving’s defeat all the more complete and all the more enjoyable when it arrives.
He loses the trial, he is exposed as a charlatan rather than a historian, and when he tries to shake the hand of Lipstadt’s barrister — as if the trial had been a public school sixth form debate — the latter abruptly turns his back on him. Lipstadt, on the other hand, is built up into a champion of the oppressed. Her name, Deborah, she explains, means leader and defender of her people. She is a woman and a Jew, which is one reason why Irving is so intent on pursuing her. And she has no interest in negotiating, compromising or reaching an out-of-court settlement with Irving.
She also spells out the importance of the case in which she is the central figure: if Irving wins, then Holocaust denial receives a judicial stamp of approval as a legitimate opinion. There is no face-to-face confrontation between Lipstadt and Irving in the film. But there is a succession of dramatic confrontations between Lipstadt and her legal team.
Lipstadt wants to give evidence at the trial. Lipstadt wants Holocaust survivors to give evidence at the trial. Lipstadt promises a Holocaust survivor that the voices of those who did not survive will be heard at the trial. But her legal team will have none of this.
Almost to the point of caricature, they are hardheaded legal professionals who base their strategy solely on what is most likely to achieve victory in court. When Lipstadt objects that if she does not testify in court people will call her a coward and that she would have to live with that for the rest of her life, her barrister responds: “That’s the price to pay for winning.”
Not that her barrister is portrayed unsympathetically: he seems to live off red wine (preferably drunk out of a plastic beaker rather than a glass), sandwiches and cigarettes. There is the same element of caricature about the High Court judge: apparently unaware of the invention of the computer, he writes his judgements with a fountain pen while drinking freshly made tea. And, without the assistance of a butler, he would surely never manage to put his wig on straight.
Although Denial was completed before Trump’s election victory, the film’s scriptwriter, David Hare, has emphasised that the film also has a more contemporary element: it takes a dig at Trump’s brand of post-factual politics: “[In this internet age] it is necessary to remind people that there are facts, there is scientific evidence and there is such a thing as proof. That was true with this court case and it’s important to say it now. [Trump’s politics] is a non-evidence-based approach to politics, what you might call Trumpery. It’s terribly dangerous.”
Cinema-goers whose idea of a good film is a five-hour-long adaptation of a novel by Proust, directed by Wim Wenders, and full of lengthy shots of dreary Swedish coastlines punctuated by endless internal monologues should steer well clear of Denial. But for those who like a film where the good guys win and the bad guys lose, Denial is a must-see.