In 1996, to her great surprise, the
American Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) found herself sued by the
British war historian and notorious Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) because,
she had called him a liar.
is a movie about what ensued when Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin
Books, refused to settle out of court. Settlement was a course of action
that would have revolted the feisty Lipstadt but which many counselled
because it would have deprived Irving of a platform from which to
expound his noxious theories. According to this account, celebrity
solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) was determined that Lipstadt would win in a
trial that would still somehow manage to deny Irving the public hearing
he so craved.
In effect, the problem of the case is also
the problem of the film: Julius, and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) ,
resolved to make the trial as low-key and unsensational as possible.
They adamantly refused to put survivors in the witness box where Irving
might mock them or point to inconsistencies in their recollections of
events more than 50 years in the past. They never called Lipstadt
herself to the stand. So, this is a Holocaust-denial drama in which no
survivor testifies and the outraged crusader for justice is told to keep
Denied the easy theatrics of a standard-issue courtroom drama, Denial
dwells instead on Julius’s preparation for the trial, Lipstadt’s
warming relationship with the redoubtable Rampton and her surprised
initiation into the vagaries of the British legal system where Julius
the solicitor takes the case but Rampton the barrister must actually
argue it in court. This approach to the story works only because Denial
rejoices in a particularly clever screenwriter – playwright David Hare,
that master of British political machinations, working from Lipstadt’s
own memoir – and a superb British cast directed by Mick Jackson (the TV film Temple Grandin).
The film starts by dramatizing the differences between libel law in the
United States and in Britain, where the burden of proof rests with the
defendant (as it does in Canada too). In an early scene, Julius explains
to Lipstadt that Irving has sued in a British court because the onus
will be on her to show that he is a liar. She sees this as bitterly
unfair; he’s the one who sued her, after all. Surely it is up to him to
prove she’s wrong. “Not in the U.K.,” Andrew Scott’s Julius sniffs in
one of the actor’s many admirable moments crafting an intriguing figure
with a sharp and sometimes intolerant intellect and a personality not
entirely free from self-satisfaction. After all, this is the lawyer who
got Diana, the Princess of Wales, her divorce.
The real foundation of the film’s approach to its story is built by Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson, playing Lipstadt’s wily lawyers. As the quietly
powerful Rampton, Wilkinson gradually reveals the man’s humanity,
carefully building up the bond with Lipstadt, who comes to realize that
his cerebral cool is exactly what is needed in the courtroom. The scenes
where these unlikely comrades, the subtle British barrister and the
outspoken American academic, awkwardly visit Auschwitz together, her in
sorrow, him in forensics mode, are particularly effective – although the decision to occasionally add faint images of people walking
down the steps to the gas chambers is completely unnecessary.
too, is the one Holocaust survivor who accosts Lipstadt in the halls of
the courthouse demanding to know why the survivors have not been asked
to testify. Lipstadt promises her the voice of suffering will be heard,
but it proves a rather hollow promise as the courtroom – and the movie’s
audience – is then subjected to a mind-numbing discussion about the
engineering of what Irving maintains were only delousing chambers.
The eventual winner in a case that some felt was an assault on Irving’s right to free speech was not a forgone conclusion and Denial
cannot depend on an easy and rousing victory in the courtroom. It is a
particularly difficult and complex case to dramatize and this clever
film with its impressive cast mainly succeeds.