Movie Review: ‘Denial’

“Denial” explores a real life trial in which a judge must determine definitively whether the Holocaust happened. The film does less well in convincing viewers of its own need to exist.

The script is based on the true story of Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an American author and history professor sued for libel by David Irving (Timothy Spall), an Englishman who is less a legitimate historian than a Hitler enthusiast. Due to British libel law, Deborah is forced to enter a London courtroom and prove she was correct in terming Irving a Holocaust denier in her book.

Deborah betrays all signs of a lefty Yank – she teaches at the university level, listens to NPR and jogs with an off-leash border collie. Irving, contrarily, is a thoroughgoing rightwing Brit – he belongs to a posh club, wears bespoke suits and coos racist ditties to his young daughter.

Luckily you can tell right off that Deborah’s legal team is excellent – Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) once represented Princess Di and Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) learns German to better try Deborah’s case. And it ought to be a dream team, as Hollywood director (and Holocaust fetishist) Steven Spielberg contributed funds to the defense.

Deborah says she hopes for a Dickensian experience and not a Kafkaesque one. But, like many Americans, she doesn’t even know the difference between the barrister and the solicitor in the British legal system. The process does have in common with America the extraordinary timeline toward justice. Deborah’s imbroglio begins in 1994 and doesn’t reach the judge until 2000. And then the trial takes eight weeks from there – all the days on trial put a strain on Professor Lipstadt’s deep rotation of colorful silk scarves. By the end, she is literally watching the clock tick while awaiting final judgment.

The courthouse scenes have some marvelous moments of condescension, as when Richard introduces video from a hateful Irving speech taken at, “A Best Western Hotel…in Tampa.” And Irving is indeed a pitiable creature – like many crackpot authors, he self-publishes and gives away copies of his books to goose publicity and posts screeds on a poorly-designed website. He’s also not afraid of distasteful metaphors, calling himself a David to Deborah’s legal Goliath and complaining that before the judge he wears a “verbal yellow star.”

Mick Jackson directs the film in a decidedly different mode than the ’90s Los Angeles zeitgeist of his earlier movies “L.A. Story” and “The Bodyguard.” For one thing, London is much rainier and, for another, “Denial” curiously defies conventional narrative expectations. There are no romances among any of the principal characters (though one junior solicitor is seen at home, where her boyfriend complains that she works too much). Richard seems to drink heavily after every court appearance but it isn’t a big deal – he’s just British. The main conflict in the film is that Deborah disagrees with the way her multi-million-dollar legal team is going to win her case. There is a heart-wrenching moment where Anthony refuses to let her speak with NPR host Julie McCarthy.

After all the barristers (or are they the solicitors?!) are finally done arguing, judge Sir Charles Gray (Alex Jennings, looking, in Deborah’s words, “like a character from ‘Masterpiece Theater’)” has to rule on whether the Holocaust happened and whether Irving is therefore a denier. Well, spoiler alert…

The most affecting passage in the film is a research trip to Auschwitz, in which Deborah and Richard stand in the snow on the frozen steps to the crematorium. Deborah sings an impromptu lament and Richard picks up a length of barbed wire that remains with him as he prepares the case. It sticks in his mind and ours – we’re left to join him in a bitter exclamation about the Holocaust: “It beggars belief.”