Ieuan Jones has written a review of Denial, which is showing in our cinema from the 3rd to the 9th of March. Tickets available here.
When I typed “did the…” into Google a moment ago, the second prompt I was given was “did the holocaust really happen” (underneath, bizarrely, “did the queen die“). Although set in that quaint time just before the internet was inescapable, the themes in Denial, a courtroom drama about questioning the truth of the Holocaust, are seemingly more relevant now than ever.
Directed by Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard) and written by David Hare (The Absence of War, The Reader), Denial is the true story of when inveterate Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) brought a libel claim against US historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Wiesz) at the High Court in London. Lipstadt had made allegations about the blatant distortions in Irving’s books as part of her work. Yet, by a strange quirk of English libel law, when such a claim is brought the burden is in fact on those defending themselves to prove that their assertions are true, rather than the person bringing the action to prove they are false.
So it is then up to Lipstadt and her legal team to trawl through Irving’s falsehoods and expose each one. It is following a visit to Auschwitz that the cultural divisions between Lipstadt and the culture she is visiting become clear. Lipstadt (who is Jewish) treats the site with a respect and a kind of awe not shown by her barrister, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), who treats the expedition rather like a fact-finding mission to gather evidence. This threatens a rift between the lippy American and the fastidious Brit, but it becomes clear this was a means to an end. The idea is, ultimately, for Rampton to use these facts to eviscerate Irving and his lies where it matters most – in the witness box for everyone to see. The resulting Judgment from the case made headlines around the world.
Denial is a fascinating, if sometimes stagey, chamber piece that highlights various collisions – such as those between American and British cultures and legal systems, but also, more valuably, the collision when lies are unmasked by the truth. The acting is excellent, with all three main protagonists using just enough force to drive the point home without becoming preachy at all. It must have been especially difficult for Spall to rein himself in and not demonise Irving, but instead to show him for what he was – a pompous and deceitful has-been looking for cheap publicity.
While there is validity in the argument that someone like Irving deserved to stay where he had been for the past two decades, firmly forgotten, by resuscitating this story Denial is making a wider point about the value of seeking the truth. At a time where there are daily accusations that all reportage can be dismissed as false news and that “alternative facts” can be used to countermand actual facts, Denial‘s reminder of the importance of this is timely.
Ieuan Jones is a freelance writer working and living in Plymouth.