In “Denial,” a defendant’s attorneys reject her plea to give Holocaust survivors a voice by putting them on the stand, deeming it unnecessary to win their case against a Holocaust denier.
It’s too bad they didn’t reconsider. It might have done wonders for this British courtroom drama, and David Hare’s screenplay, which suffers from an overly clinical and flattened approach to the 20th century’s most horrific act.
The story centers around Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an Emory University historian who is taken to court in 2000, along with her publisher, by British Holocaust denier David Irving. Director Mick Jackson loosely based the film on his 2005 memoir.
Unlike in the United States, the burden of proof for libel cases in Britain rests with the defendant. It’s up to Lipstadt’s attorneys to prove the Holocaust happened, and that Irving knowingly falsified information in claiming it hadn’t.
Irving is played by Timothy Spall, best known to U.S. audiences as Peter Pettigrew, the servant to Lord Voldemort. It’s a fitting cinematic warm-up for being an apologist for Adolf Hitler.
The movie begins in 1996, when Irving shows up to disrupt a university lecture Lipstadt is giving from the book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” in which she calls Irving out. A letter arrives in Lipstadt’s mailbox shortly afterward informing her of the libel suit.
Lipstadt assumes it will be a slam-dunk to prove the Holocaust happened, and expects she and Holocaust survivors will take the stand. But once in England, her British legal team explains it doesn't want to give Irving the chance to turn the courtroom into a circus. The case will be won on facts without their testimony, she’s told, although that proves harder than it first seems given how careful the Nazis were in destroying evidence at the concentration camps.
Barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) embarks upon a conservative legal strategy based on legal arguments and forensics. Chipping away with facts alone is not the case Lipstadt wants to wage.
The film’s most emotional moment comes when Lipstadt and her legal team visit Aushwitz, a death camp not built to be one. As the discussion turns to proving the cyanide used to kill Jews wasn’t for simply disinfecting against lice, Lipstadt drifts away to recite a prayer in Hebrew by the ruins of a gas chamber, while a raindrop that looks like a teardrop hangs from nearby barbed wire.
That moment is an exception. Character development, which helps viewers care about who they’re watching, is also in short order starting with Lipstadt. The suburban home where Lipstadt received her letter, and her small dog are all that’s revealed about her besides her academic position. Lipstadt is well-intentioned, but also unreasonable and myopic. Too often her scenes feel contrived, from her outrage over how the British legal system works to brief exchanges with a Holocaust survivor over allowing victims to testify.
Wilkinson is his usual brash self as Rampton, his cerebral shell occasionally revealing cracks due to the gravity of the case. Rampton’s dedication earns begrudging appreciation from Lipstadt, but one wishes there was more revealed about him beyond a penchant for alcohol while burning the candle late at night in his study.
Irving lives well-off with a black housekeeper, but little else is revealed about him, either. He looks suitably sinister in a couple of scenes when peering out a window, but the anti-Semite comes across as a bit of a clown, lacking the menace the role called for to amp up the tension in the courtroom.
“Denial” lacks the heart and the suspense of such Holocaust courtroom classics as “Judgment at Nuremburg.” In this case, more of both would have gone a long way.
2 ½ stars (out of 4)
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall
Director: Mick Jackson
Running time: 110 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material.
The lowdown: After a British Holocaust denier sues an American author for libel, the burden of proof falls on her as the Holocaust goes on trial in an English courtroom.
Showing at: Dipson Amherst and Eastern Hills cinemas.