Susan Granger’s review of “Denial” (Bleecker Street)
Until the late 1980s, British historian David Irving (Timothy Spall) enjoyed respectability among his peers, even though his best-known book “Hitler’s War” (1977) claimed that Hitler had no knowledge of the Holocaust. But then Irving began to deny the existence of the Holocaust, ridiculing claims that there were gas chambers.
When a strident American academic from Queens, New York, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), accused him of anti-Semitism in “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory” (1993), it never occurred to her that she – and Penguin Books – could be sued for libel – or that the ensuing court cast would put acceptance of the Holocaust on trial.
Under British law, the burden of proof lies on the defendant. In America, it lies with the plaintiff. So Lipstadt, a history professor at Emory University in Atlantic, could either settle out of court, which Irving would claim as a personal victory, or proceed; she chooses the latter.
Solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who represented Princess Diana in her divorce against Prince Charles, prepares the case which dour Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) presents at London’s Royal Court of Justice on Lipstadt’s behalf.
Patching together actual transcripts and meticulously researched recordings, screenwriter David Hare (“Wetherby,” “The Hours”) and director Mick Jackson (“The Bodyguard,” TV’s “Temple Grandin”) proceed as the eight-week courtroom drama evolves. As a result, sneering, smarmy David Irving was not only discredited but also disgraced.
Too bad the filmmakers didn’t try for more of an emotional connection with Deborah Lipstadt, comparable, perhaps, to “Woman in Gold” (2015), in which Helen Mirren played Jewish refugee who went back to Vienna to reclaim a Klimt painting stolen from her family by the Nazis.
In the current political climate, the release of this film couldn’t be timelier, examining concepts like fact-checking, conspiracy theories, and the need for concrete evidence when making claims.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Denial” is a somber, suitably shaming 6, yet without a satisfying showdown moment.