“Denial” Puts Holocaust Denial on Trial

Movie review by Deborah Baer Mozes

There can come a time in life when a person must take a stand, be a leader, or as in Deborah Lipstadt’s case, become Boadicea, the Warrior Queen from British history. This is the core of “Denial,” David Hare’s riveting courtroom drama and screenplay adaptation of Deborah Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier.

In 1993, professor and historian Deborah Lipstadt wrote an in-depth history and analysis of Holocaust denial, called Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. At the start of the film, Lipstadt, skillfully played by Rachel Weisz, is having a typical academic day, giving a lecture on her work. However, her life changes that day when she is interrupted by David Irving, an acclaimed British pseudohistorian and one of the deniers she wrote about in her book. Since Lipstadt is committed to not engaging in debate with deniers, the scene becomes tense as she tries to keep her composure and her students’ attention.

From this small-scale challenge, David Irving, in an outstanding performance by Timothy Spall, decides to take his case to a grander and larger arena by bringing a libel suit against Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, claiming that her book has defamed his reputation as a historian. The case is brought to court in England, rather than in the United States, where the book was published. We immediately learn the fundamental difference between American and British libel law. Under American law, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant is making untruthful statements; under the British system, it is the defendant who must prove the truth of his or her own statements. In other words, Lipstadt, and now her defense team, must prove that what she wrote about Irving was accurate.

Directed by Mick Jackson, this is not the fiery courtroom drama we are accustomed to seeing on screen, but rather, a thoroughly researched, precise and cleverly crafted trial, led by the barrister, Richard Rampton, played with great class and craft by Tom Wilkinson.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in transforming Deborah Lipstadt’s story to the screen is the fact that the leading character is often on the sideline, an observer in her own drama. The strategy of her legal team revolved around putting the facts front and center, not Ms. Lipstadt. As a woman used to being at the front of the class, a feminist, a runner in charge of her choices and destiny, she must be silent and let the men fight her fight. From a dramatic action perspective, in the hands of a lesser actress, this could have made for a very labored and boring film, but dexterous Rachel Weisz gives us a subtle insight into Lipstadt’s inner monologue. We learn, as Lipstadt does, that sometimes to win, one must allow others to lead, that the sideline can sometimes be a place of strength.

A central arc in “Denial” is the relationship between Deborah Lipstadt and Richard Rampton. Initially unclear of his approach and commitment to her case, Lipstadt discovers that like his appetite for good wine, he has a keen appetite for the truth and a passion to win this case for its historical importance. Each scene between Weisz and Wilkinson is as full bodied as the wine they are drinking.

Ultimately, Rampton’s strategy enables the facts to reveal the truth about the narcissistic denier: at his core, he is an “anti-Semite and racist” and that “Holocaust denial is at its heart a form of anti-Semitism.”

“Denial” reminds us that just like Boadicea, the Warrior Queen, whose statue guards the shores of the Thames River, we must always be vigilant guardians of truth.

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