Fateful timing brings the Holocaust drama “Denial” into American theaters in the stretch run of the strangest presidential election in modern American history.
Here’s a British film about a British lawsuit in which an unconscionable liar sued a widely-celebrated American Holocaust researcher in which the judge has to wonder if the liar is indeed a liar if he believes the nonsense, deliberate distortions and bigoted remarks that come out of his mouth and onto the page.
“Deplorable?” That’s exactly how many Brits might describe David Irving, a self-taught historian and Hitler apologist, a “Holocaust denier,” as Emory University historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) describes him.
And that inflammatory phrase is why Irving (veteran character actor Timothy Spall, Churchill in “The King’s Speech,” “Wormtail” in the “Harry Potter” movies) and some supporters ambushed Lipstadt at an Atlanta speaking engagement, where her refusal to debate such people was put to the test.
Irving sued Lipstadt and her publisher, and Penguin threw together a dream team, partly paid for by famous Jews from both sides of the Atlantic (Steven Spielberg’s name came up) for what promised to be a sensation — “The Holocaust put on trial.”
But it’s a fair knock on “Denial” that “sensation” never comes into it. The British courts put the burden of proof in such cases on the person being sued. With one lawyer preparing the case and another arguing it, with outbursts in court unheard of and her attorneys refusal to allow her, or Holocaust survivors, to testify, the trial devolves into a generally dry game of cat and mouse between the smooth and polished Irving and Lipstadt’s advocate, played with cunning and warmth by the great Tom Wilkinson.
Screenwriter David Hare (“The Reader,” “The Hours”) and under-employed British director Mick Jackson (“L.A. Story”) make the film’s title into a pun. Irving denies the Holocaust, the systemic round-up, enslavement and slaughter of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other “undesirables” during World War II, ever happened. Lipstadt, given an outspoken Queens-raised turn by Weisz, must keep her mouth shut, practice “self-denial” and trust her attorneys, led by the canny legal mind, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) who won Princess Diana’s divorce.
The mouthy Lipstadt is stunned by the request to keep her silence, furious at the PR war she sees being lost from the start. British jurisprudence can be a jolting experience to those used to America’s adversarial but seemingly fairer “innocent until proven guilty” system.
“I don’t mind Dickensian,” she cracks. It’s ‘Kafka-esque’ that scares me.”
History buffs will delight in her insults to the condescending Brits. She, and they, know what “appeasement” means and what she’s saying when she accuses them of it. Sure, the British screenwriter and British Oscar winner playing Lipstadt flirt with making Lipstadt a stereotype, an argumentative self-described “defender of my people” among the “Chosen People.” But Weisz gives her brass and allows her moments of amusement amid her outrage.
Spall is magnificent playing a self-polished spokesman for skinheads and Britain’s anti-Semites. But Wilkinson, despite being loaded down cliches meant to make Lipstadt, and us, underestimate him — he drinks and drinks and smokes and smokes and eats blood putdding — still manages to embody the heart of the movie — a voice of reason, logic and memory.
No, Richard Rampton won’t let Lipstadt onto the stand. No, he won’t call the pleading and shrinking crowds of Holocaust survivors who have made it their life’s mission to bear witness. He’s brusque as he stalks through a moving wintry Auschwitz visit, rude even.
It is “proof” his character is after, and he and the movie suggest it’s high time that forensic science and simple, hard evidence be brought to bear on this most emotional subject, the world’s most heinous crime and one of the great human-made tragedies ever. Evidence that will put shut deniers up for good.
The film’s courtroom concentration — the suit, prep and trial took years — makes it one of the driest treatments of The Holocaust ever. But Weisz and Wilkinson find emotions around the edges of all that be-wigged legal wrangling.
Jackson and Hare make this something of a celebration of “The British Way,” an attempt to remove justice from the court of public opinion.
But watch “Denial” hot on the heels of Netflix’s “Amanda Knox,” about an American trapped by the arcane backwardness of Italy’s courts, and it’s enough to make you want to turn in your passport.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material and brief strong language
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott
Credits:Directed by Mick Jackson, script by David Hare, based on the Deborah Lipstadt book. A Bleecker Street release.
Running time: 1:50