How has Donald Trump’s repeated assertions that Barak Obama wasn’t born in the United States found such traction with so many Americans in this bitterly divisive election year? Here’s a film that presents a parallel example from recent contemporary history that promises to shed some light on how the repetition of lies can effect pubic perceptions.
In 1996, British historian and expert on Nazi Germany David Irving sued Emory University Professor Deborah Lipstadt for libel, arguing that her book on Holocaust deniers accused him of being a falsifier and bigot. Well-known and highly controversial for his anti-Semitic writings at the time he brought his lawsuit, Irving claimed that Professor Lipstadt’s unproved claims about him tarnished his academic reputation and thus jeopardized his income. Irving based his assertions on the fact that no one had ever proved, or could prove, that the Holocaust actually occurred. Since he brought this legal action in England against Lipstadt and her British publisher, U.K. law applied, requiring Lipstadt to prove the historical reality of the deliberate and systematic slaughter of Europe’s Jews under Hitler’s regime. Denial serves as a dramatized summary of the court’s findings, rendered after more than two months of trial and another month of judicial consideration.
Accomplished screenwriter David Hare (The Hours, The Reader) shapes this voluminous story around 3 central characters; Lipstadt, (Rachael Weisz), Richard Rampton, (Tom Wilkinson), the attorney who led her defense and Irving himself (Timothy Spall). Hare’s screenplay concentrates on simplifying the complex layers of historical fact and cunning distortion through polished excerpts from the trial’s proceedings with Weisz cast as a one-woman Greek chorus whose comments on the proceedings summarize the reactions of Jewish people everywhere at the travesty of giving Irving’s assertions pseudo-legitimacy. The outcome is never in doubt, so the film’s success stands or falls in the skill with which its plot is presented.
Alas, despite pith-perfect performances by the movie’s male leads, Weisz’s lines lack the subtlety of those given to the rest of the film’s cast, especially a pair of crucial parts played by Andrew Scott and Jack Lowden, much seen in BBC television series. With a flurry of Hare’s crisp lines, they explain Rampton’s legal strategy in terms non-lawyers can easily grasp, turning Denial into a stellar example of the screenwriting craft.
That said, the film strives to generate a level of tension and suspense the outcome undercuts; we know Irving’s statements are falsehoods from the beginning, so watching them get legally debunked has only limited ability in arousing an audience’s interest. In the end, this is an earnest, handsomely crafted production intent on driving a stake through the heart of anti-Semitism by depicting its pernicious effect yet its impact lacks the passion the movie so ardently sought to express.
The Verdict? A solidly-presented story…but alas, not as gripping as it might have been.
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