||[Feb. 7th, 2017|10:44 pm]
Reviews of the film Denial have been pretty mixed, but I think Peter Bradshaw sums up the issues pretty well: it may be a bit pedestrian at times, he says, but it's an astonishingly timely film, telling a story that needs to be told right now. I'd agree with that.
The timeliness, though, is actually one of the puzzling things about it. How long does it take to get a feature film from green light to a screen near you? David Irving's libel action was decided in 2000; Deborah Lipstadt's book about it (on which David Hare based his screenplay) was published in 2006. Somehow the film, after showing at festivals in the autumn of 2016, manages to reach UK cinemas in the early days of the post-truth presidency; I saw it within a week of the Holocaust Memorial Day from which the White House had managed to exclude the Jews. Did someone know it would be needed right now?
I suspect that some of the criticism of the film's 'clunky' exposition (yes, Hadley Freeman, I am looking at you) is just critics saying "But I already know this! Doesn't everyone?" But if you concede the need for any exposition at all (and if you don't, you probably don't see any reason to make this movie) then the way it was done was methodical and thorough but I didn't mind it (and yes, I did know quite a lot of it already). I found it funny rather than irritating that you could tell when the scene had shifted to London because it was raining.
There's a related problem, I think, that people who remember the case will also know what the verdict was, which makes it difficult to create dramatic tension on that account. Even if you don't remember the case, you might feel that the tone of the narrative made one outcome by far the most likely. I certainly felt that the narrative was working quite hard to supply an alternative source of tension, in the relations between Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) and her legal team. Deborah Lipstadt initially assumes that she will take the witness stand. No, say the lawyers, your testimony is in your (allegedly libellous) book, and it is our job to destroy Irving's case, not yours to defend yourself. She isn't entirely comfortable with this, although we have already seen a prologue in which David Irving tries to derail one of Lipstadt's lectures, and she declines to debate with him (saying that you can debate opinions, but certain things are facts). Later the disagreement takes a different form: a woman who has been watching from the public gallery reveals herself as a Holocaust survivor, and asks, when will our voices be heard? Again Lipstadt agrees with her, and again the lawyers win the argument. Only when the case has been won can the rift be healed by Lipstadt's realisation that her barrister (Richard Rampton, played by Tom Wilkinson) was truly committed to the cause, that his reactions on their visit to Auschwitz showed not indifference but a mind already at work on the case, and that through his onslaught on Irving the voices of Hitler's victims have indeed been heard.
This is touching - and for all I know it may really have happened. It felt a little trivial, and beside the point. There was a reminder, too, that the task of the barrister is to represent the client, whoever that client may be, in the passing remark that in a previous case, Rampton's client had been McDonald's. Wait, what? Yes, that McDonald's libel case: representing the full might of McDonald's against a couple of Greenpeace activists doesn't look quite so much like the work of a knight in shining armour - though he can't have known at the time that the case was even murkier than it appeared, the allegedly (and partly) libellous leaflet having been co-authored by an undercover police officer.
If Hollywood demanded that the good guys not only do the right thing but also display their impeccable motives, it also left no room for doubt in its handling of the bad guy. Timothy Spall's David Irving is almost a pantomime villain. Watching the man himself on Newsnight (a clip from which was recreated in the film) he is loathsome, but not - even when playing up to an audience - grotesque.
I won't embed that video, because it's not something you'd want to come across unawares, but it's a very interesting half hour. Better than the movie? No, despite my reservantions the movie is an important story well told. But it's good to have a little reality as a chaser.