As courtroom dramas go, “Denial” is tasteful, to a fault.
In playwright David Hare’s screenplay, based on actual events, you won’t hear anyone shouting something like “You can’t handle the truth!” from the stand. No one will ever accuse director Mick Jackson (“L.A. Story”) of taking sensational liberties with the truth.
Then again, where is the excitement?
Jackson capably directs this subdued interpretation of Deborah Lipstadt’s 2005 memoir “History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier.” The film begins in 1996 when British writer David Irving sued Lipstadt, a historian at Emory University, and her publisher for libel, after she referred to him in writing as a Holocaust denier. The movie follows her yearslong fight to defend the historical record and to take Irving down.
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On film, Rachel Weisz plays Lipstadt with a curly red wig and a meticulously enunciated Queens accent. Her first encounter with Irving (Timothy Spall) comes during a reading from her book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.” As a stunt, Irving shows up to the event with an associate filming him while he heckles Lipstadt, offering $1,000 in cash to anyone in the audience who can prove Hitler ordered the Holocaust.
Shortly afterward, Lipstadt receives a letter informing her that Irving is suing her for libel in a British court, where the burden of proof falls on her. Unlike the U.S. court system, in which the plaintiff must demonstrate that he or she has been libeled, Lipstadt must prove that she didn’t libel him — in other words, that the Holocaust happened, and that Irving deliberately falsified evidence to suggest that it didn’t.
That shouldn’t be that hard, right? The Holocaust is widely accepted as fact. Then again, the Nazis were careful to cover their tracks when it came to systematic genocide.
Although there are survivors who can testify to what they endured, Lipstadt’s British legal team, led by solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott, providing a dose of wit) and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson, providing the gravitas), don’t want to put them on the stand. They won’t even put Lipstadt on the stand. Irving, who decides to argue his own case, intends to make a scene, they reason. So they opt to limit his opportunities for grandstanding and emotion. Although the brash and outspoken Lipstadt is horrified to be silenced, she also wants to win.
The case was undoubtedly an important one for the cause of intellectual honesty. Yet the stakes, at least as depicted in the film, feel curiously low. Spall’s Irving comes across more like a disturbed imbecile than an opponent worth taking seriously. On-screen, the likelihood that Lipstadt and her team will steamroll him in court is never in much doubt.
With minimal backstory provided for the characters, “Denial” also lacks emotion. One exception comes during a visit to Auschwitz, when Lipstadt and her legal team tour the death camp, collecting evidence to prove what most everyone already knows. In one stirring sequence, the camera cuts from Lipstadt standing beside the ruins of a gas chamber, reciting a prayer, to a shot of a raindrop, hanging like a tear from a barbed wire fence.
More often than not, though, “Denial” feels clinical and overly careful. Hare’s screenplay is efficient at delivering facts, but just the facts. The movie may be competent at telling its story, but it’s missing one key ingredient: feeling.
☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Tom Wilkinson.
Director: Mick Jackson.
Running time: 1:50.
Rated: PG-13, for brief strong language.