While watching "Denial," a moving but pat courtroom drama, I had no doubt the filmmakers sensed the urgency of the subjects at stake, and yet it treats them in a somewhat superficial way. The picture is a competent, middlebrow take on issues of truth and suffering, justice and free speech. It's based on Deborah Lipstadt's book, "History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier," adapted by playwright David Hare and directed by Mick Jackson. Lipstadt is a historian who, in 1996, was sued for libel in England, along with her publisher, Penguin Books, by the titular denier, David Irving, for calling him what he was: a liar. Under English law, the plaintiff need not prove libel; rather, Lipstadt had the burden of proving her contention that Irving deliberately distorted history, in a way which was motivated by his racism. The case, which finally went to trial in 2000, would be no cakewalk. Unlike most deniers, Irving had a bit of standing. He was admired for his work on military history, and for the excellence of his German.
Rachel Weisz is a hoot as Lipstadt, the brash, ginger, big-hearted writer from Queens. She's quite a character--almost a caricature. When we first see her, she's teaching a class, challenging her students to respond to the "prove it" challenge of the deniers. Irving is played by Timothy Spall as a petulant, beetle-browed man, first seen on tape making obscene jokes to a guffawing audience: more women, he declares, died in Teddy Kennedy's back seat than in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. Later, this toxic man rises from the audience at a Q&A for Lipstadt's book, "Denying the Holocaust," offering $1,000 to anyone who can produce hard proof. The lights blind Lipstadt and throw Irving into relief as a figure of darkness.
In London, we meet her lawyers: the curt Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who handled Princess Diana's divorce, and the experienced Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), a claret-loving bon vivant. We meet the legal team, as well, but as the movie progresses they barely register. Scott is tremendous fun to watch as Julius, a cold man of reason bemused by the direct American. The fiery Lipstadt is a fish out of water. At dinner with members of the Jewish community, they caution her to be careful: Julius is in it for himself. Though she opts to trust him, their encounters become more and more tempestuous. Julius gags her, refusing to allow her to testify or even speak to the press. He also refuses to allow Holocaust survivors to testify, arguing Irving will only mock them, and the case is about forensics, not catharsis. A survivor (Harriet Walter) buttonholes Lipstadt outside the courtroom to insist the voices of the dead be heard. When she pulls back her sleeve to reveal her tattoo, I must say the moment felt contrived. I couldn't help but think how much more artful and powerful a film was last year's "Phoenix."
Nobody on the defense wants to put the Holocaust on trial. However, if go there they must, then they must visit Auschwitz. On a wintry day in the ruins, Lipstadt and Rampton meet with expert Robert Jan van Pelt (Mark Gatiss). They descend the steps to the underground gas chambers. In 1988, an unsavory man called Leuchter secretly chiseled off chips of the chamber and ran spurious tests, which he proclaimed found no trace of gas. (In Errol Morris' film, "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.," van Pelt demolishes the Leuchter "study.") Rampton knows Irving will rely on Leuchter's "findings," and so the defense needs its own proof. Why, he declares in frustration, has there never been a proper scientific study done on this building? Lipstadt is appalled at Rampton's forensic approach to a sacred place. There is a method to his madness, however. Earlier, we had seen him pacing the perimeter of the camp. At trial, that exercise comes in handy. When Irving claims the gas chambers were actually bomb shelters, Rampton shows it wouldn't make sense to have a "shelter" that's a two-mile walk from the officer's barracks.
Often, the movie has people confront each other in a melodramatic way that doesn't feel like life. Yet as Lipstadt and Rampton warm to each other, their conversations feel natural. When Lipstadt presses the "just-the-facts" lawyer for a human emotion from his trip to Auschwitz, he says he supposes "shame." He confides in her his secret fear that he would have been a coward in Nazi Germany, would have been one of those who followed orders. These scenes are the closest the movie comes to really getting to the heart of its characters.
The courtroom scenes are engrossing. As Hannah Arendt pointed out in "Eichmann in Jerusalem," a trial is like a play, so this is Hare's metier. Hare has said his script follows the actual trial testimony, verbatim. (Curiously, Richard J. Evans, a witness who played a decisive role at trial in debunking Irving, seems to have been written out of the story entirely.) During a boxing match with van Pelt, with seconds on the clock, Irving declares there were no holes in the roof of the gas chamber at Auschwitz, and thus gas could not have been dropped. Later, a disgusted Lipstadt jogs past sandwich boards outside a pub, trumpeting this bombshell. We just about know that at the end of the trial, she will jog by the same sandwich boards, and they will proclaim the Holocaust a fact. This is, in a way, what the judge found. "It's not too much to say," Christopher Hitchens wrote, "that by the end of the trial, the core evidence for the Holocaust had been tested and found to be solid. The matter of Irving's reputation as scholar and researcher--which was the ostensible subject of the hearing--was so much 'collateral damage.'" At a post-trial press conference, we see the survivor beaming from her seat.
Thus, "Denial" boasts good acting and witty writing in the service of a tidy morality tale of truth trumping racism and lies. In the end, Lipstadt stands in front of a statue of Boudica, another fighting ginger, the Celtic queen who took on the Roman Empire. She'd noticed it before, but now she smiles. Maybe there is a director who could have persuaded us this moment was the stuff of life, but here it registers as one more script imperative. The final note, though, is powerful. The camera crawls over the quiet rubble at Auschwitz, finally descending down one of those holes in the ceiling of the gas chamber. It is the image as fact, in the face of Irving's denial. It is pat, yet, but in this case it's also powerful.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)