Denial is a strange film – a star-laden ‘independent film’, conventional in style and approach but with an intriguing mix of genre elements. Always engaging and involving it certainly delivers for audiences while being dismissed by some mainstream critics. Its release in the UK at the end of the first week of the Trump presidency proved timely as it offers an opportunity to explore concepts of ‘historical truth’ and the difficulty of ‘proving’ it in a court of law.
Denial is another ‘based on a true story’ narrative. It follows the legal proceedings set in train by the British ‘historian’ David Irving who alleged damage to his reputation caused by published statements by the American academic scholar Deborah Lipstadt in her book Denying the Holocaust (1993). Under English law, a libel action such as this is heard in the High Court and the onus of proof is on the defendants (in this case Ms Lipstadt and her publishers Penguin Books). The danger of defending the action was that Irving, a notorious right-wing Holocaust denier, would get the chance in court to expound on his own views and attack the statements of defence witnesses. In many cases libel actions are ‘settled’ out of court but would this be acceptable/advisable in this case. Deborah Lipstadt decided to fight and the film narrative is based on her book about the case.
The production did not have major studio backing but the three US and UK companies did receive support from BBC Films in the UK. In the US the film was released by the independent Bleeker Street but in the UK it is an eOne release, i.e. from one of the two ‘mini-majors’ (eOne is a Canadian-US-European multinational). The film’s cast boasts four central performances from acclaimed actors. Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt, Tom Wilkinson plays her barrister Richard Rampton and Timothy Spall plays David Irving. All three are very good and deliver the performances their reputations suggest. But for me the standout, in a smaller role, is Andrew Scott as Anthony Julius, the solicitor who Lipstadt turns to first. Irish actor Scott is currently being feted for his Hamlet at the Almeida in London and his performance in the difficult role of Julius is very impressive. David Hare adapted Lipstadt’s narrative (the courtroom dialogue is taken from the court transcript). Hare is a distinguished British playwright who is also well-known for his screenplays and for his films as a director. I haven’t seen much of his recent work but I remember his 1980s films such as Paris By Night (1988) and Plenty (1985) (directed by Fred Schepisi, written by Hare from his own play). I thought both films struggled to utilise the powers of their leads (Charlotte Rampling and Meryl Streep respectively). Rachel Weisz does better in this new film. Denial is directed by Mick Jackson. I was surprised to find that back in the 1980s Jackson directed the Barry Hines scripted Threads (1984) – one of the great British TV films about the possible effects of nuclear war. In the 1990s he went to Hollywood and scored with The Bodyguard (1992) with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner but in 1997 he the disaster movie Volcano proved to be his last cinema film for nearly twenty years (all spent on TV projects). Why did the producers choose Hare and Jackson as a team?
The key to Denial is, I think, the generic mix and how it works with the Holocaust discourse. At the centre of Denial is a courtroom drama with very high stakes. But the film is effectively a drama-doc – a dramatised reconstruction of actual events. So, although the trial is gripping, we know the outcome already and there are no real surprises. The trial was finally held in 2000 by which time the discourse of Holocaust studies/films/books etc. was developing further. Steven Spielberg, whose 1993 film Schindler’s List raised the profile of Holocaust narratives is mentioned in Denial‘s script. The Holocaust narrative in Denial is focused on the dilemma for Lipstadt and her defence team about how they should deal with the emotions and hurt that Irving’s vile outpourings were bound to threaten. The script veers towards making this a conflict between British and American attitudes to the libel case and this in turn means that the narrative must include an explanation for audiences of the crucial difference between English and American law, despite the fact that American law is based on English Common Law principles. (I can’t remember if the script refers to ‘UK law’, but American readers should note that Scottish law is a different beast altogether.) This conflict is neatly symbolised (or ‘heavily signalled’) by a tiny action in which at the beginning of the trial Deborah Lipstadt refuses to bow to the presiding judge when the trial begins, but at the end of the trial seems to have become ‘anglicised’ and bows like everyone else. I’m not sure how much patience American audiences will have for this narrative, but for me it was the most interesting part of the film. The emotion is carried partly by the existence of Holocaust survivors who the defence team, to Lipstadt’s dismay, are reluctant to use in court. For narrative convenience, only one such survivor is singled out (played by Harriet Walter, one of several well-known British actors playing smaller roles.) Rampton must refute Irving’s claims by conducting a case which shows evidence that buildings in Auschwitz were used to gas Jewish (and other) inmates of the concentration camp. This isn’t straightforward.
The potential Anglo-American split is also played out in the relationship between Lipstadt and Richard Rampton. Wilkinson’s Rampton is initially seen by Lipstadt as cold, detached and lacking compassion. There is no suggestion of any kind of romance between the two but the script displays what might be thought of as tropes of a romance narrative as Rampton visits his client’s room with a bottle of wine and she seeks him out in a café. Part of the conflict revolves around the social class distinctions of the English legal profession and alongside the emotional questions this is brought out first on a trip to Auschwitz which, as Rampton himself points out, is not for “memorialising” but for forensics – it is a crime scene and he must prove what happened.
Denial has done steady but not spectacular business for a narrative of this kind in the UK, making £730,000 in five weeks. I suspect it appeals mainly to older audiences and that it will find a wider audience on TV, where its star names will attract viewers who will be rewarded by the script and performances. As a cinema film it does feel a little ‘clunky’ but in truth Mick Jackson has only limited opportunities for visual display. He focuses on a foggy Auschwitz visit with some success but primarily this is about skilled actors and a highly literate script delivered in meeting rooms and Kingston County Hall masquerading as the High Court on the Strand.