There are a number of ‘accepted truths’ that the human race seems to settle upon. Some are considered so incontrovertible and utterly sacrosanct, that to even consider questioning them is to risk the wrath of the majority.
Such ‘truths’ are very often linked heavily to people’s emotions and there’s therefore a considerable amount of personal-attachment or vested interest that one must tip-toe around and take into account before daring to offer anything resembling a difference of opinion.
Unless your name is David Irving, that is.
Director Mick Jackson’s film, Denial, recounts the Irving vs Lipstadt libel case which came about as a result of Deborah Lipstadt’s alleged defamation of Irving and his own historical conclusions regarding the Jewish Holocaust of World War II.
David Irving caused quite the stir with his insistence that no Jews were actually gassed at Auschwitz during World War II, and that any claims that they had been, were merely guess work – essentially unfounded.
Waving a wad of one thousand pounds above his head as a reward, Irving stands at the rear of the auditorium in which Lipstadt is giving a seminar, and challenges both Deborah and anyone there that subscribes to her version of history, to produce just one single document to prove him wrong. Deborah’s flat refusal to debate with anyone that she terms to be a ‘denier’ he takes as proof that she can’t.
The unfolding scenario is quick to capture the imaginations of the media and naturally therefore the general public, ultimately leading the pair towards their big show-down at London’s Royal Courts of Justice.
On paper, this is the kind of subject matter that’s absolutely made for the big screen. An apparently outrageous suggestion, an allegedly defamatory reaction, with one huge mother of a legal battle to follow.
Mick Jackson’s film however somehow manages to miss most of its cues and opportunities, and succeeds only in converting the film’s contentious, somewhat prickly talking points into a remarkably tepid affair, and it’s not difficult to see why.
It is true that Rachel Weisz is perfectly decent as the emotional and rather sanctimonious, Lipstadt, whilst Tom Wilkinson’s depiction of Richard Rampton QC, is reassuringly weighty. The real problem lies with Timothy Spall. There’s nothing wrong with his performance per se, there’s just not enough of it. Whereas Lipstadt’s character is examined in some depth throughout the piece, Irving’s character is almost brushed off as an irrelevance in this contrived fight between good and evil. Half-drawn as some sort of a cartoon villain, complete with hangers-on from assorted right-wing groups of dubious purpose, his character is then, to all intents and purposes, abandoned – starved of oxygen, much in the same way that his highly contentious opinions were deliberately given no platform whatsoever within the court room – a tactic employed by Lipstadt’s legal team that would ultimately prove to be decisive.
No matter what your opinion of Irving’s ‘work’ may be, and no matter the possibly spurious nature of his motives, the fact remains; if a film presents nothing but a deeply one-sided argument – such as is the case here – it really is no argument at all; more a fait accompli, and that, in the context of film-making is, quite frankly, disappointing.
There are however areas in which it’s only fair to suggest that Denial film does deliver. It’s not all insubstantial. In particular, the vastly differing approaches exemplified within the defence. The emotionally-driven approach of Lipstadt and a number of Holocaust survivors who assemble daily at the court – and whose voices Lipstadt firmly believes should be heard as evidence – is in stark contrast to the more reserved, measured and logic-driven decisions of her legal team, and at times makes an insightful and intriguing spectacle. It doesn’t, however, alter the fact that there’s a definite sense of underwhelming superficiality about Denial. It’s a film which, on balance, lacks inspiration, glosses over content far too readily, fails to probe sufficiently into the life and motives of Mr Irving, and consequently simply falls flat. It fails to really ask too much of its viewers other than to insist that they all come along for the ride, on a fast-tracked, pre-determined journey to a well-known, agreed upon destination.
Perhaps the film’s rather one-eyed approach is best summed up by the words of Deborah Lipstadt, herself: “Now, some people are saying that the result of this trial will threaten free speech. I don’t accept that. I’m not attacking free speech. On the contrary, I’ve been defending it against someone who wanted to abuse it…”
In other words: you may say what you like, but you can’t say some things if I, and many others don’t agree with them – a.k.a, denying truly free speech.
All things considered, Denial is a neat and tidy little film, conveniently tied-up with a pretty little bow, but it’s badly lacking in a number of areas. Worse still, it’s a severely imbalanced piece, and perhaps worst of all, an enormous waste of Timothy Spall’s considerable talents.