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Audrey Kupferberg: Denial

DENIAL, a newly-released film, relates a very important true story, one that actually drew headlines 16 years ago.  The focus of the plot is a lawsuit that worked its way through English courts from 1996 into the 21st century.  In this suit, self-proclaimed historian David Irving sued Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt, an eminent American scholar on Holocaust Studies, for libel for characterizing some of his writings and public statements as Holocaust denial.

While the strong plot thread carries the film, it should be pointed out that some of Britain’s exceptional actors play the lead roles. In fact, I believe it is the acting that brings this film out of the realm of a straight-forward court procedural, into the realm of a superior drama.  Tom Wilkinson, and Andrew Scott (who many will know as the evil Professor Moriarty on SHERLOCK) are eloquent in their roles as solicitor and barrister. And speaking of SHERLOCK, Mark Gatiss who plays Mycroft Holmes, appears as a concentration camp scholar who leads a tour of Auschwitz.  Timothy Spall builds a fascinating character as slimy racist David Irving.  Harriet Walter makes quite an impression in a brief appearance as a Holocaust survivor.

Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt.  I don’t know how the real Professor Lipstadt presented herself to her lawyers and to the courts in London, but I found the film’s version of her to be troubling.  After all, the character is a published professor at Emory University, a respected person, but the on-screen character is unpleasant at times, and sometimes unprofessional.  She approaches the British lawyers with doubt and distrust.  She thinks she can build a better case.  She has a couple ill-advised and immature little outbursts in court that could prejudice the case.  Weisz does an adequate job of building her character, but does that character actually reflect the real Lipstadt?  As I saw the movie, I wondered if Lipstadt’s quirks were genuine, or if they were there to add some conflict to the screenplay.

The script was crafted by the remarkable David Hare whose plays are well-respected and well-attended by West End theater-goers.  He is quite a prolific writer and consistently offers topnotch work.  In the case of DENIAL, Hare based his script on Lipstadt’s book, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier.

This movie is about one major concept:  the importance of presenting truth in history as well as in current events.  The story in DENIAL demonstrates that shameful, harmful lies can easily be presented as truth.  According to the traditional values of civilized countries, certain truths are held to be self-evident.  But most of us realize that this no longer is the case.  We have had too many instances of seeing people in positions of influence blatantly lie.  Too much time, money, and effort have been spent having to prove that there are liars among us, fact-checking those who are presenting mistruths in public forums. 

DENIAL educates as well as entertains.  However, if you bring youngsters to the theater, be sure they understand what the Holocaust actually was… and that it really did happen.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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