In 1996, British Holocaust denier David Irving sued American academic Deborah Lipstadt, charging that she libeled him when she wrote that he had deliberately manipulated historical evidence to present his argument that Nazis did not exterminate millions of Jews.
As a result of the trial, which Irving lost, the Holocaust is now regarded as a fact, not a subject open to debate, in British courts of law.
Worthy for its subject matter and superb cast, but lacking dramatic thrust, “Denial” dramatizes this significant case.
Competently directed by Mick Jackson (“The Bodyguard”) from a screenplay by playwright David Hare, and based on Lipstadt’s book “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial,” the film is a legal procedural and a relevant issue drama about the importance of recognizing and protecting historical truth and condemning liars and bullies who pervert it.
Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt, the respected, Atlanta-based Jewish historian who has devoted her career to documenting the Holocaust.
In a warm-up attack, denier Irving (Timothy Spall) disrupts a lecture Lipstadt is giving in connection with her new book.
Later, he files his lawsuit against Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books.
Refusing to settle quietly, Lipstadt, thinking not only about her professional reputation but about the case’s implications for Jews and posterity, heads to England to fight.
Culture-clashing with her British legal team, whose key members include young solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and seasoned barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), Lipstadt is shocked to learn that in British libel cases, the burden of proof is on the defendant, not the plaintiff. She protests when informed that she will not take the witness stand, nor will any Holocaust survivors. The focus will be on Irving.
It is satisfying to see this hateful man exposed as an anti-Semite, racist and fabricator.
Hare used dialogue from actual court transcripts in his screenplay, and the courtroom scenes, heavy with forensic detail, unfold with credibility.
The problem is that the story is set up with Lipstadt as its passionate heroine and driving moral force. Yet she’s been buttoned up, which limits the emotional impact of a film that should be stirring.
And while Weisz is believable as a Queens-accented American who refuses to bow to the judge in a British courtroom, she has little chance to do anything riveting with the character.
Faring best are Spall, who makes Irving — “More people died in Senator Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died at Auschwitz,” he says at one point — scarily human, and Wilkinson, whose methodical lawyer, seemingly callous during an Auschwitz visit, slowly reveals numerous caring shades.
Two and a half stars
Starring Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson, Andrew Scott
Written by David Hare
Directed by Mick Jackson
Running time 1 hour, 50 minutes