Film review of Denial

April 13, 2017

This film review of “Denial” originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News in a shorter form on 13 April 2017.

Directed by Mick Jackson; written by David Hare, based on the book by Deborah Lipstadt; starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall and Andrew Scott

*****

Not long after American history professor Deborah Lipstadt published her 1993 book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory”, she and her publisher Penguin Books was sued by British author – and noted Holocaust denier – David Irving for libel. The story of this court case becomes the film “Denial”, opening in Australian cinemas this week.

British libel laws operate differently than other countries: the defendant is presumed guilty unless they can be proven innocent and the burden of proof is much higher. Not only was Lipstadt’s credibility on trial, but also that of Holocaust scholarship, with Irving using the opportunity to promote his denial ideology by focussing on small “unproven” items that could cast doubts on the Nazi genocide.

This docu-drama illustrates real events over the period 1994 to 2000, based on Lipstadt’s memoir, “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial” (previously “History on Trial”). The film opens with a confrontation where Irving disrupted a lecture of Lipstadt, and then recounts the court case itself, almost solely through Lipstadt’s eyes. We see her meetings with her legal team, with British Jewish community leaders and with an un-named survivor. Lipstadt is forced to watch the trial unfold without speaking out because her legal advisers focussed on making the case about Irving (who conducted his own defence) rather than about her.

“Denial” gathers a great cast of British actors, with Rachel Weisz – originally tipped for an Oscar nomination for the role – neatly capturing Lipstadt’s nasal New York (Queens) accent. Tom Wilkinson – one of the best character actors working in film today – plays Lipstadt’s barrister Richard Rampton, and Timothy Spall (the artist Turner in “Mr Turner”) inhabits the persona of David Irving in a form likely to burn itself in public consciousness as the definitive Irving. Andrew Scott (Moriarty in “Sherlock”) plays lead solicitor Anthony Julius, who in real life is one of Britain’s leading campaigners against antisemitism. Many important historians appear, including Cambridge academic Richard J. Evans (played by John Sessions) and Dutch scholar Robert Jan van Pelt (Mark Gatiss).

The characters are delightfully drawn, the settings create a strong sense of place, particularly London and Auschwitz, which the defence team visits on an eerie, snow-covered and foggy day.

Courtroom dramas are a staple of modern feature films. From “Witness for the Prosecution” to “Judgment at Nuremberg” to “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Evil Angels” to “A Few Good Men”, the courtroom is ready-made for what the screen does well: illustrate conflict between adversaries, albeit without physical violence. Along with its wider themes of historical truth and the Holocaust, “Denial” sits within this genre, but the film never hits the “aha” moments that the best legal dramas require. This may be because of the known ending or the film’s requirement to stick closely to a trial that revolved around arcane historical research. Because Irving and Lipstadt have only one actual verbal encounter early in the film, the dramatic challenges of the film revolve around keeping Deborah Lipstadt from speaking out, not the most compelling drama.

“Denial” is a film about history and the nature of historical research.  History matters, this film tells us, because it tells us who we are and how we lived then.  But the law also matters, because it can confirm – or deny – one historian’s views in the official view of society.

(image below: Rachel Weisz in “Denial”)

(Note: “Denial” originally opened in North American cinemas on September 30, 2016.)

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Early 2017 Jewish film releases

December 22, 2016

(This article appeared in different form in the Australian Jewish News on 22 December 2016.)

Many of the best films released in Australia arrive in early summer each year, coinciding with the release of Oscar and Golden Globe nominations in late January and early February.  Watch out for:

January 12

Jackie:  Playing Jaqueline Kennedy is a big step; few Americans are held in such mythical regard as the late wife of the assassinated President, a stylish and tragic figure who was left a widow with two young children after the death of JFK.  Jewish actress Natalie Portman (already nominated for a Golden Globe best actress) perfectly captures Jackie Kennedy’s mannerisms and style in a powerful and brave performance that is likely to place her sitting in the front row awaiting next February’s best actress Oscar choice. “New Yorker” film critic Anthony Lane calls “Jackie”, “a dance to the music of grief”:  this film is a slice of American tragedy.  Given the recent Presidential election and the fascination with “First Ladies”, “Jackie” may very well capture the current “zeitgeist political moment”.   Jewish TV producer Noah Oppenheim scripted, Peter Sarsgaard plays Robert F. Kennedy, Greta Gerwig plays White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman and Billy Crudup plays the historian Theodore H. White.  Jewish trivia:  The Forward reports that Jackie Kennedy spent the last 14 years of her life living with (but not married to) Maurice Tempelsman, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.  In common with President Bill and Hillary Clinton and President-elect Donald Trump, Jackie’s daughter Caroline married a Jewish man.  The soundtrack of “Camelot”, which closes this film, was written by Jewish songwriters Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.

January 19:

Lion, produced by Emile Sherman (Australian Jewish producer and Oscar winner for “The Kings Speech”), is being tipped for Oscar considerations.  It’s a great – and true – Australian story, adapted from the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierly. Five-year-old Saroo finds himself alone and travelling on the wrong train away from his home in northern India. Frightened and bewildered, he ends up thousands of miles away. He survives the streets, ends up in an orphanage and is adopted by an Australian couple played by Nicole Kidman (nominated for a Golden Globe best supporting actress) and David Wenham, and grows up in Hobart.  The kicker to this story is that using his imperfect early childhood memory and new satellite-imaging technology, Saroo commences “one of the greatest needle-in-a-haystack quests of modern times” – to find his family.  Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”; also nominated for a Golden Globe best supporting actor) stars as the older Saroo.

Two other important films are due out in February or March, to be confirmed once Oscar nominations are announced:

Denial, the historical dramatisation of the court case brought against American Holocaust expert and professor Deborah Lipstadt, opened this year’s Australian Jewish film festival to powerful reactions. Directed by Mick Jackson and written by Sir David Hare (“The Reader”, “The Hours”), it is based on Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier about how David Irving sued her and Penguin Books for libel.  The film stars Jewish actress Rachel Weisz, Academy Award winner for “The Constant Gardener”.  Other actors include Tom Wilkinson and Timothy Spall as David Irving.

Land of Mine premiered at this year’s Sydney Film Festival and is being considered for a best foreign language Oscar.  The title of this Danish-German co-production (“Under Sandet” in German) holds a deliberate double meaning in English. Taking place in the immediate aftermath of World War II and based on true events, the film tells the story of young German prisoners-of-war who are forced to disarm many thousands of land mines that the German army had placed on the sandy west coast of Denmark.  Intended to slow an Allied invasion that never happened, the mines are highly lethal and hard to disarm.  A particularly young group of German soldiers – most of them still in their teens – has been given this months-long task, supervised by a Danish sergeant who is filled with rage against the Germans.  This powerful portrayal of revenge, culpability and humanity speaks strongly to the questions that faced the Allies immediately following the war: who is to be punished from the actions by Nazi state, and how?

Other films to note in early 2017 include:

January 5:

Edge of Seventeen, an unusually high quality (and soon could be classic) teen film stars Jewish actress Hailee Steinfeld, best supporting actress Oscar nominee for “True Grit” (and nominated for a Golden Globe best actress).

January 12

Collateral Beauty, an absorbing drama about post-traumatic stress starring Will Smith, directed by Jewish director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada“) and written by Jewish screenwriter Allan Loeb (“Things We Lost in the Fire”).

February 2:

In Patriot’s Day, a docudrama about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing from Jewish director Peter Berg, the theme of home-grown Islamic fundamentalism-turning violent terrorism remains highly contemporary (both the USA and Australia).  Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman and J.K. Simmons star.

Bastards, a comedy from first-time Jewish director Lawrence Sher, who has been one of the most accomplished American cinematographers in recent years (not at profession that has attracted many Jews), and who grew up in “the Orthodox neighbourhood of Teaneck, New Jersey”. Owen Wilson and Ed Helms play two brothers with an eccentric mother (Glenn Close).

February 16:

Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese, is an adaptation of the Shusaku Endo novel about 17th century Jesuits who risk their lives to bring Christianity to Japan.  Scorsese has created what will probably be one of the most significant religious history films in years.  Stars include Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”), Liam Neeson and Adam Driver.

March 30

The Ghost in the Shell stars Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson in a sci-fi action film that will bring in audiences, based on the Japanese manga.

Table 19 is an American wedding comedy by Jewish director Jeffrey Blitz, who is an Oscar nominee for the documentary “Spellbound”. Anna Kendrick and Lisa Kudrow star.

April 6

In Going in Style, Zach Braff – the Jewish director of “Garden State” and “Wish I Was Here” – has created a comic heist/caper film, with a great cast including iconic Jewish actor Alan Arkin, along with Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Ann-Margret, Matt Dillon and Christopher Lloyd.

denialImage above: Rachel Weisz (left) plays Deborah Lipstadt (right) in the film “Denial”; see Moment Magazine‘s article and also The New Yorker article by Tad Friend, 3 October 2016.