DENIAL, drama, rated PG-13, Regal DeVargas, 3 chiles
How do you prove guilt in a historical whodunit when the entire world knows exactly who done it? That is the central question of this courtroom drama based on Deborah E. Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (Ecco, 2005), which describes the real-life legal battle that occurred in the late 1990s when infamous Holocaust denier David Irving sued Lipstadt for libel — a result of her actually calling him a Holocaust denier.
Irving (played here with weaselly charisma by Timothy Spall) felt his reputation as a thinker and historian was slandered, and so he sued Lipstadt and Penguin Books in the UK, where the burden of proof is on the accused. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) and her lawyers found themselves with the peculiar task of proving that the Holocaust actually happened, and that Irving intentionally falsified his historical writing to argue otherwise.
Screenwriter David Hare and director Mick Jackson keep the film focused on the case itself. This is a no-frills, no-fat film, and those looking for modern parallels to fact-fudging deniers of climate change or the 9/11 terrorist attacks will have to squint fairly hard to find connections — although the film is particularly pointed in our current “we’ve got to hear both sides” era, where even the most absurd and offensive viewpoint is treated with merit. Even character development gets short shrift; the film’s relationships, which primarily involve Lipstadt and her lawyers, don’t blossom from the page so much as the performances.
Fortunately, the actors are up to the task. Weisz is sharply determined, compulsive, and driven by obvious emotion, making her a nice counterweight for her coolly reasonable British team of lawyers, in particular the intelligent and off-putting Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott, who is most famous for playing the smugly smart Moriarty on the BBC’s Sherlock) and the warm Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). It’s the friendship between Lipstadt and Rampton that bubbles to the fore and becomes the film’s heart. Wilkinson, as usual, exudes enough charm to envelop the whole screen; Rampton argues in court with the skill of an objective tactician, but in private betrays his passion for publicly shaming Irving as a fool and a bigot.
The courtroom scenes, which make up a bulk of the film’s second half, showcase a cat-and-mouse game involving journals, historical facts, texts, and egos, with Rampton sparring cleverly against Irving (acting as his own lawyer). The audience, meanwhile, witnesses the battle from our proxy in Lipstadt, who craves justice, desperately wants the voice of the Jewish people to be heard — and who likely wants to strangle Irving. It’s not a terribly stylish movie, but it is crisply edited and highly compelling, especially as you know who did it in the end. — Robert Ker
Having her say: Rachel Weisz