DENIAL (2016)

October 6, 2016

denial Greetings again from the darkness. Guilty until proven innocent. It’s a concept that is inconceivable to Americans, yet it’s the core of British Law in libel cases. When once respected British historian David Irving accused American scholar and educator Deborah Lipstadt of libel, based on her book that accused him of being a Holocaust denier, the burden fell to Lipstadt to prove not just that Irving’s work was a purposeful lie, but that the Holocaust did in fact take place.

This is the first theatrical release in about 15 years for director Mick Jackson, who is best known for his 1991 L.A. Story and 1992 The Bodyguard, and for his Emmy-winning 2010 TV movie Temple Grandin. The script is adapted, from Deborah Lipstadt’s book, by playwright David Hare (The Reader, 2008), and the courtroom dialogue is taken directly from trial records and transcripts. Like most courtroom dramas, the quality relies heavily on actors.

Rachel Weisz plays Ms. Lipstadt with a brazen and outspoken quality one would expect from a confident and knowledgeable Queens-raised scholar. Timothy Spall bravely takes on the role of David Irving, a pathetic figure blind to how his racism and anti-Semitism corrupted his writings and beliefs. Tom Wilkinson is the barrister Richard Rampton who advocates for Ms. Lipstadt and Penguin Books in the libel suit brought by Mr. Irving. Andrew Scott plays Andrew Julius, the noted solicitor who also handled Princess Diana’s divorce from Prince Charles. Others include Caren Pistorius as an idealistic member of the legal team, and Alex Jennings as Sir Charles Gray – the sitting judge for the case.

Of course for any sane human being, it’s beyond belief that a Holocaust denier could achieve even a modicum of attention or notoriety, much less have the audacity to bring suit against a scholar who simply published descriptions of that denier’s own words. Rather than come down to fact vs opinion, a more fitting title would be opinion based on fact vs opinion based on a lie. If the words used against Irving in Lipstadt’s books are true, she would win the case. In other words, she had to prove that he was a racist, an anti-Semite and knowingly misrepresented the facts in his works as a Holocaust denier.

Mr. Jackson’s film begins with Ms. Lipstadt as a professor in 1994 at Emory University (where she remains employed to this day). In 1996, the lawsuit is filed, and in 1998, Lipstadt and Rampton visit Auschwitz. Though the courtroom drama and corresponding legal work takes up much of the film, it’s this sequence filmed at Auschwitz that is the heart and soul of the film. Very little melodrama is added … the scenes and the setting speak for themselves.

The trial finally started in 2000, and as always, it’s fascinating to compare the British court of law and process with that of the United States. The formality is on full display, but nuance and showmanship still play a role. The film and the trial ask the question … are you a racist/anti-Semite if you truly believe the despicable things you say/write? This is the question that the judge wrestles with (and of course, “Seinfeld” had a spin on this when George stated “It’s not a lie, if you believe it”).

It’s been a rough movie week for me with the Holocaust and slavery (The Birth of a Nation), but it’s also been a reminder of just what wicked things people are capable of, and how current society continues to struggle with such inexplicable thoughts. Kudos to Ms. Weisz, Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Spall for excellent performances, and to Mr. Hale for the rare inclusion of a Chappaquiddick punchline.

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THE LADY IN THE VAN (2016)

February 5, 2016

lady in the van Greetings again from the darkness. “There’s air freshener behind the Virgin”. That line should provide the necessary caution for you to be braced for just about anything to be said by any character in this latest from director Nicholas Hytner.  Billed as “A mostly true story”, it’s actually more commentary on how we treat those less fortunate and how we use others for our own gain. That bleak message is cloaked here in humor and a wonderful performance from Dame Maggie Smith.

Alan Bennett is an author, playwright and screenwriter known for The History Boys and The Madness of King George (Oscar nominated for his script). He is also at the core of this story – every bit as much as Ms. Shepherd, the lady in the van. While living in upper crust Camden Town, Mr. Bennett offered to let Ms. Shepherd park her van in his driveway for a few weeks until she could make other arrangements. This van was also her home, and the years (as they are apt to do) came and went until this arrangement had lasted 15 years (1974-1989).

You might assume that Ms. Shepherd was an extremely appreciative “squatter”, but in fact, she was quite a cantankerous and difficult woman, possibly/probably suffering from mental instability. Maggie Smith brings a humanity to the role that she had previously owned onstage and radio. She goes far deeper than the wise-cracking old lady role we have grown accustomed to seeing her play … though her vicious dialogue delivery remains in prime form. Throughout the film, we assemble bits and pieces of Ms. Shepherd’s background: an educated-French speaking musician-turned nun-former ambulance driver-who “possibly” won awards for her talents. She is also carrying a burden of guilt from a past tragic accident that keeps her in the confessional on a consistent basis.

Mr. Bennett is played by Alex Jennings (The Queen, 2006), and the film actually presents dual Bennetts – the one doing the writing, and the one doing the living. These two Bennetts are a virtual married couple – arguing over Ms. Shepherd, and jabbing each other with barbs aimed directly at known emotional weaknesses. The living Bennett claims to be so full of British timidity that he couldn’t possibly confront the woman junking up his driveway. The writer Bennett takes the high road and claims he would rather write spy stories than focus his pen on the odorous, obnoxious transient living in his front yard. Of course, now that we have a play and movie, it’s difficult to avoid viewing Mr. Bennett’s actions as anything less than inspiration for his writing … though the extended charitable actions cannot be minimized.

With director Hytner and writer Bennett reuniting, it’s also interesting to note that more than a dozen actors from The History Boys make appearances here. The list includes James Corden, Frances de la Tour, and Dominic Cooper. Also in supporting roles are Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay (playing constantly irritated neighbors), Gwen Taylor as Bennett’s dementia-stricken mother, Jim Broadbent as a blackmailing former cop, and Marion Bailey as a staffer at the abbey.

Filmed at the same house where the van was parked for so many years, the film is a reminder to us to exercise tolerance and charity in dealing with the poor. Even Bennett’s grudgingly-offered assistance is a step above what would typically be expected. While we could feel a wide spectrum of emotions for the two main parties here, it’s Ms. Shepherd’s character who says “I didn’t choose. I was chosen”. We are left to interpret her words in a way that is either quite sad or accepting.

The film mostly avoids dime store sentimentality, and that’s in large part due to Maggie Smith’s performance. Few are as effective at frightening young kids or putting the elite in their place. The ending scene shows the real Alan Bennett cruising into the driveway on his bicycle just as the blue plaque honoring the lady in the van is displayed. We can be certain this gesture would not generate a “thank you” from her.

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