In 1994, Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, gave a lecture about Holocaust deniers. She was interrupted by British historian David Irving, one of her main targets, who waved $1,000 above his head, proclaiming he would give the money to anyone who could prove the Holocaust had occurred.
This is how “Denial,” starring Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt, sets the stage for the real-life drama that unfolds: a court case in which Irving sues Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, two years later, contending that her book, “Denying the Holocaust,” accused him of being a Hitler admirer and Nazi apologist, thus ruining his livelihood and reputation as a historian. Beginning on Jan. 11, 2000, the trial lasted 32 days in court and resulted in a resounding judgment in favor of the defendants. The ruling set a historic precedent because it established for the first time in court that the Holocaust actually happened.
Directed by Mick Jackson and written by David Hare, “Denial” strives not too strenuously to transcend its trappings as a standard-issue courtroom drama. It’s a workmanlike effort rescued by two first-rate performances, from Timothy Spall as Irving and Tom Wilkinson as the barrister, Richard Rampton, who successfully represented the defendants. Irving represented himself during the trial. In the movie, his clashes with Rampton, which might be taken for dramatic license, are taken virtually verbatim from the court records.
Weisz’s performance, which should be the film’s shining centerpiece, is heavily mannered. She appears to have been told to play “American,” and so she sports a triple-thick Queens, N.Y., accent, presumably modeled on Lipstadt’s, and takes every opportunity to be obstreperous. Lipstadt, as we are told on far too many occasions, can’t comprehend the British legal system in which, in cases of libel, the claimant need only show defamation. The burden of proof is on the defendant, not the plaintiff.
Essentially it’s the reverse of the “innocent until proven guilty” American model. (Lipstadt refused to settle out of court.) Furthermore, her legal team, which also includes Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), the showboater who represented Diana, Princess of Wales, in her divorce proceedings, has concocted a courtroom strategy that disallows not only Lipstadt from testifying on her own behalf but also prevents any Holocaust survivor from taking the stand.
To do so, we are told repeatedly, would only legitimize Irving’s contentions and, in the process, humiliate the survivors under cross-examination. Why this should be so is not exactly clear, but in retrospect, you can’t argue with success. Still, it would have been a powerhouse moment if Irving and Lipstadt had crossed swords in the courtroom. As it is, “Denial” seems as much about Lipstadt’s own denial as Irving’s – hence the film’s ironic, double-edged title. She must deny with every fiber of her being the impulse to personally confront Irving. Good legal strategy, not-so-good drama.
We are often told by actors that, to play a villain, they must find a way to justify – humanize – their actions. It’s to Spall’s immense credit that, in “Denial,” he does just this. And he does so without once allowing us to forget that this man, however cantankerously affable he might at times appear, is loathsome. His performance is a model of how to play a bad man without resorting to a lot of wink-wink actor’s tricks.
Wilkinson’s acting is likely to be undervalued simply because it seems effortless. His Rampton, who likes his liquor and can prove as testy as Lipstadt, is a man whose compassion often goes unnoticed beneath his bluster. We can see how, in the scene in which he visits Auschwitz, he struggles manfully to stick to the job at hand: finding evidence, not expressing woe. The deepening relationship between Rampton and Lipstadt, as his feelings come to the fore, is the movie’s most resonant one. Except for these two performances, “Denial” is brisk, efficient, and dry. For a movie with so much horror and sadness at its core, that’s not exactly a rousing recommendation. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for thematic material and brief strong language.)