Donald Trump’s response to inconvenient news is to tweet that it never happened. Creationists insist on equal billing for their ideas. Climate change sceptics dismiss the evidence marshalled against them. We live in an age when proof has become optional and simply to hold an opinion, however flaky and unsupported, is to merit a slot on Fox News. But the daddy of counter-reality is holocaust denial and its loudest voice belongs to David Irving, which makes the release of a film based on his libel case against Penguin Books and their author, Deborah Lipstadt, almost eerily well timed.
Lipstadt had denounced Irving in print and refused to debate him in public, even when he gate-crashed one of her lectures. You are entitled to believe anything, she argued, but not to expect a platform for views motivated by prejudice and based on falsification of the facts. That standpoint, as much as the Final Solution itself, went on trial at the Old Bailey. The case was brought in London because British libel laws laid the burden of proof on the defence – one of several quirks in our legal system with which Lipstadt struggles at first. Needless to say, she comes to love, or at least understand, us in the end, contributing to a whiff of smugness in Denial. A view from the other side of the Atlantic might have let us off less lightly. And while we are on the subject, Rachel Weisz is credible enough as Lipstadt and achieves the feat, difficult for her, of not looking improbably gorgeous; but were no American actresses available to play the part? This preference for ‘one of us’ adds to the undertow of self-satisfaction, even complacency. Perhaps if the film was being shot now a sense of ongoing struggle might have replaced the back-slapping finale. A battle won, not the war.
Still, this is a case where the subject matter is more important than (I almost said trumps) minor quibbles about the film. On such occasions cinema acts like a newspaper of record, placing information in the public domain. If it is done well, the audience emerges talking less about the direction or performances than about the events depicted in the film. The question remains, however: how do you inject narrative tension when the outcome is known and one side in the contest is beyond the pale? David Hare’s script appears scrupulously fair, giving Irving his moments in court. Mick Jackson generates as much tension among the home team as with their opponent at times. And Timothy Spall nearly makes one sympathise with his character, particularly at the end of the trial when his handshake is spurned by opposing counsel. David versus Goliath was how he saw the engagement and one’s instinct is to side with the little guy. This was the establishment ranged against him, after all, on the right side for once but still arousing one’s instinct to rebel.