The appearance of “Denial” in the middle of the 2016 presidential election is exceptionally timely: Mick Jackson’s account of the David Irving-Deborah Lipstadt libel case, which was brought in 1996 and finally decided over three years later, is a perfect complement to a campaign in which big lies have played an unprecedented role. The London trial was about one of the biggest of all—the proposition that the Holocaust is a hoax. The case, brought by Irving on the grounds that Lipstadt had libeled him by labeling him a Holocaust denier in her book and accusing him of deliberately distorting fact to reach his conclusions (thereby damaging his scholarly reputation) was essentially an academic dispute, but one that had enormous ramifications in legally confirming the truth of the worst genocide in human history against specious but purportedly reasonable argument to the contrary. The outcome was a rightful refutation of the notion, so common in political reportage nowadays, that both sides of any disagreement are worthy of respectful consideration, no matter how palpably false and noxious one of them might be.
While the issues raised by “Denial” are profoundly important, however, the difficulty of compressing the events of nearly half a decade into a span of less than two hours proves too much for Jackson and screenwriter David Hare. In particular their decision to expend so much time explaining the eccentricities of the British legal system and the controversial strategy adopted by Lipstadt’s English lawyers leaves little to fashion a compelling portrait of the defendant, who theoretically should be at the center of the story. Happily, they find an alternative focus in Richard Rampton, the Scottish barrister whose confrontation with Irving, a man sufficiently arrogant to act as his own lawyer and to testify on his own behalf, was decisive in the decision that the judge ultimately reached.
The strategy adopted by Jackson and Hare, to be sure, has a certain allure, from the point of view of craftsmanship. The perspective they embrace emphasizes not just the denial of the Holocaust by Irving (Timothy Spall), but the self-denial that the lawyers’ strategy demands of both Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) and the death camp survivors who want desperately to testify about their horrendous experiences. As Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), the solicitor who agrees to take the case on behalf of Lipstadt, the Emory University professor, and her publisher Penguin Books, explains, under British law the burden of proof in a libel case rests with the defendant, who must prove not only error but malicious, intentional error. That will mean not only marshaling lists of challengeable statements in Irving’s books but showing that he deliberately suppressed or altered evidence in making them.
Both Julius and Rampton insist that process should not include testimony from either Lipstadt or the camp survivors. Their rationale is explained in the course of the film, but it comes across as only partially convincing. Julius contends that the survivors would be humiliated under cross-examination by Irving, who could callously seize upon the slightest uncertainty or confusion, using it to create doubt. Even if one accepts that argument, however, it’s never fully clear why Lipstadt shouldn’t take the stand. The only compelling argument is that if the way she responded when Irving had confronted her during a lecture back in 1994—given as a sort of prologue in the film—is any indication, she simply doesn’t have the temperament to confront his particular brand of shameless showmanship without breaking down.
Whether one accepts that or not, the result is that Lipstadt spends most of the film struggling to keep her composure and learning to trust the lawyers, and Weisz has little opportunity to delve very deeply into her character, serving more as a passive observer than an active participant in the preparation and presentation of the case. Nor does it help that despite efforts to dowdy her up and give her a frumpily academic appearance, the actress’ leading-lady beauty shines through anyway.
Happily the hole that creates at the center of the picture is filled by Tom Wilkinson, who plays Rampton as a hard-drinking but single-minded master of his trade who, despite a gentle disposition, can suddenly turn stern, becoming a quietly seething presence in the courtroom and systematically destroying Irving with surgical precision. It’s a part that basically has Wilkinson’s name on it, and he dispatches it with almost effortless charisma. The difficulty is that the script must pare down the mountain of evidence collected by a small army of academic researchers to a mere couple of “gotcha” moments where Irving’s claims of scholarly probity ring conspicuously hollow—and one of them is based on a visit the legal team had made to the appropriately ghostly Auschwitz, where Lipstadt was disconcerted by Rampton’s apparently legalistic attitude, only to find out in the end that his work there was not only purposeful, but in the end decisive in the outcome of the verdict.
Wilkinson is matched, at the other end of the docket, by Spall, who gleefully conveys Irving’s monstrous ego and contemptuous air without reducing him to mere caricature. In his hands Irving retains a glimmer of humanity, even if it’s disfigured by his hatred of an academic world that looks down upon him and his willingness to distort the historical record in search of a perverse sort of personal vindication.
Otherwise “Denial” is as elegant and decorously done a British legal drama as one could wish. The supporting cast endows the film with a Masterpiece Theatre aura, with Hilton McRae, among a host of fine character actors, managing a turn as the bewigged judge that would do Edward Fox proud. The London locations are impeccably used by cinematographer Haros Zambarloukos, and his ability to give a spectral sense of visual doom to the Auschwitz sequence is especially notable. Howard Shore contributes a score that’s characteristically unobtrusive but emotionally telling.
It’s arguable that in tackling the issues involved in this trial, “Denial” took on a subject too large for a single film to handle. But as might also be said of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film about the war crimes trials that followed the fall of the Third Reich, though the earnest dramatization of the case doesn’t fully satisfy, the importance of the issues the film raises makes it worth seeing and reflecting on.