'Denial' Review: Legal Drama Pits Academics vs Holocaust Skeptics

Real-life libel suit between an author and a notorious Holocaust denier turns into deep moral drama

Real-life libel suit between author and a Holocaust denier turns into legal (and moral) showdown in 'Denial,' starring Rachel Weisz. Read our review. Credit: Laurie Sparham

Incendiary subject, inadequate movie – that's the deal with Denial, a wobbly but well-meaning docudrama about the 2000 British libel suit by alleged historian/notorious Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall). against American academic in Jewish studies Deborah E. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) and Penguin Books, who published her tome, Denial: Holocaust History on Trial. Irving, an ardent Hitler sympathizer, claimed that Lipstadt damaged his reputation and his livelihood. In England, as opposed to America, the burden of proof is on the defendant, not the plaintiff. It's an all-out war. At stake, the truth of the Holocaust being held up to constant re-examination. Director Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard, Temple Grandin), working from a script by the justifiably acclaimed playwright David Hare, stays circumspect, using only trial transcripts for the courtroom scenes. The strategy is a solid one – dispassion indeed may be the best defense against Irving's rabid claims. But the impulse to rage is hard to tamp down.

Luckily for the film and audiences, the movie has been cast with acting giants, who bring out the subtext of the story. Spall puts such an avuncular face on Irving, who serves as his own advocate, that the unthinkable takes on the mask of truth. Tom Wilkinson is cagey perfection as Richard Rampton, the barrister who makes the decision not to call Holocaust survivors to the stand. His feeling is that Irving will humiliate and confuse these witnesses for his own gain. Lipstadt is forced to suit mute in court unable to speak out. Weisz, sporting a Queens accent to match her character’s thrusting personality, is such a knockout actress that she makes you feel Lipstadt’s thundering frustration at not being heard.

Where the film cheats its subject, I think, is in not allowing a fuller characterization of what’s happening behind the scenes. It's one thing for Lipstadt to hold her tongue in court, another to hold back in private. Of course, restraint was the key to winning the case. Still, it's in those scenes outside the courtroom, notably a heart-piercing trip to Auschwitz in which Rampton finds the "appetite" he needs bring his case home, that embed in the memory. If I'm being too hard on this movie it's because it has so much unrealized potential. But make no mistake: the potent provocation on screen is still essential viewing.