'Lipstadt, played with energy by Rachel Weisz, is colourful, passionate, empathetic'Bleecker Street

In April 2000, a High Court judge ruled the historian David Irving to be “a racist, an anti-Semite, a Holocaust denier and a falsifier of history.” The verdict was the outcome of a libel case lasting more than four years. Irving had accused American academic Deborah Lipstadt of slander for labelling him an anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier. Thanks to iniquitous British libel laws the burden of proof fell on Lipstadt and her lawyers to prove that her original accusation was true, that Irving was a fraud and had deliberately falsified the historical record. In this way the trial became about something larger: was it possible to prove, beyond doubt, that the Holocaust happened?

“But in the age of ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’ it provides a timely reminder that truth is not a matter of mere opinion, and that there aren’t two sides to every story”

This is subject of Mick Jackson’s film Denial. Clearly it’s an important one but is in many ways unpromising material for a film. The bread-and-butter proceedings of a complicated libel case provide little in the way of glamour (men in suits and wigs, lawyers’ offices, archival research) and the first half an hour feels clunky in more ways than one. Lipstadt is given a few very obvious character cues (all her students greet her with sincere affection, she likes jogging and owns a dog). Characters sit and talk for long periods reminding each other of the finer points of libel law. Since the outcome of the case is never in doubt the film sometimes lacks a sense of direction.

On the whole, however, Jackson and screenwriter David Hare manage to create a subtle and thoughtful piece. Hare resists the temptation to sensationalise. Rather, he chooses to turn the trial into an exploration of the paradoxical tension between emotion and reason in the pursuit of the truth. Lipstadt, played with energy by Rachel Weisz, is colourful, passionate, empathetic: her lawyers, led by Andrew Scott’s Moriarty-esque character, are a more monochrome bunch. It is through their impersonal rigour that ‘post-truth’ is banished, as Lipstadt comes to realise. But empathy also plays its part because it reminds us why the truth is important. When things threaten to become too stale, the film cuts to scenes of Auschwitz, reminding us of the reality the documents prove but also crowd out.

“Hare resists the temptation to sensationalise. Rather, he chooses to turn the trial into an exploration of the paradoxical tension between emotion and reason in the pursuit of the truth”

The film is helped by some good performances. Thanks to Timothy Spall, Irving’s persuasiveness, and hence danger, are made fully apparent. With a mixture of charm and indignation, bombast and buffoonery, by now depressingly familiar, Spall adds an element of threat which is otherwise largely absent. Tom Wilkinson also shines as Lipstadt’s barrister, avuncular behind the scenes but satisfyingly sharp in court.

In the final analysis, Denial is a rather cerebral affair and this slightly worthy film falls short of the Oscar it was clearly aiming for. But in the age of ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’ it provides a timely reminder that truth is not a matter of mere opinion, and that there aren’t two sides to every story. The only sobering thought is that Irving’s is in many ways a singular case: not many falsifiers of the truth submit themselves to a four-year forensic examination in the courts. Denial, with its largely optimistic ending, does not confront that particular truth.

Libel law hardly makes for compelling viewing, but this thoughtful film nevertheless conveys a refreshing and important message

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