Denial: Historical courtroom drama falls short (3/5 stars)

A strong cast and compelling material never quite add up to a dramatic payoff.

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click to enlarge Tom Wilkinson stars as barrister Richard Rampton in "Denial," a Bleecker Street release. - Laurie Sparham / Bleecker Street
Laurie Sparham / Bleecker Street
Tom Wilkinson stars as barrister Richard Rampton in "Denial," a Bleecker Street release.


3 out of 5 stars

Rated PG-13. Directed by Mick Jackson.

Starring Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson.

Now playing.

In cinema's best courtroom dramas, there is some powerful hidden truth that can be brought to light only through the efforts of a fiercely dedicated attorney. Col. Nathan Jessup ordered the "code red" and it's up to Lt. Daniel Kaffee to get him to admit it. Tom Robinson could not have attacked Mayella Ewell and it's up to Atticus Finch to prove that to the racist citizens of Maycomb.

The truth at the heart of the courtroom drama Denial isn't hidden, but few truths could be more powerful — that the Holocaust happened, that Germany's National Socialist government designed and executed a campaign to murder all of Europe's Jews and that 6 million of them perished in the camps. We all know these things occurred, but how does one prove it?

That's the burden put on historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) in the real-life story of she and her publisher, Penguin Books, found themselves the subject of a 1996 libel suit filed by David Irving (Timothy Spall), a British "Hitler historian" whom Lipstadt had accused of being a Holocaust denier. Indeed, he does publicly deny the Holocaust ever occurred. But given that defendants in British libel suits must prove "justification" — that is, that the allegedly defamatory speech is true — defending the case requires proving that the Holocaust occurred, that Irving knew it and that he intentionally twisted the facts to deny it.

That's quite a legal hurdle to clear and agreeing to mount a defense, rather than simply settle, was unquestionably a risky gambit. Leading Lipstadt through the labyrinthine eccentricities of British libel law is her solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), a celebrity in legal circles for having represented Princess Diana in her divorce, and her barrister, the gruff Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), whose task is to set a trap for the slippery Irving to fall into on the stand.

If all of this sounds like promising stuff for a film, it absolutely is. Alas, neither the script from playwright David Hare nor the direction by Mick Jackson ever seem to quite know what to do with the source material. For Jackson, who is probably best-known for directing the Whitney Houston vehicle The Bodyguard, this is first theatrical release in nearly 20 years, having spent most of the intervening time in television. It shows in the finished product. Denial is staged and paced very much like a really polished TV movie, albeit one that never quite finds a way to ramp up the dramatic stakes.

Even the film's central conceit — that Lipstadt had to fight Irving's lawsuit lest the memory of the Holocaust be relegated to a matter of mere "opinion" — is far from intuitively obvious. No one would rewrite the history books if Penguin chose to settle, and giving this has-been crank a platform to spew his venom seems exactly what he was looking for. Indeed, characters in the film meant to represent influential members of London's Jewish community warn Lipstadt of precisely that, though the film doesn't portray their naysaying in a particularly good light.

Another recurring theme of the plot sees Lipstadt fighting with her counsel over strategy. She badly wants to testify. She also wants to call Holocaust victims to the stand to offer their firsthand accounts of what really happened. Repeatedly, her lawyers refuse, detailing the many ways the strategy could backfire if Irving, who represented himself in the case, was given a chance to humiliate those who already have suffered so much. These debates, which occupy a good portion of the running time, never quite go anywhere dramatically, amounting to extended scenes of the protagonist being mansplained to. Although — spoiler alert — in the end, the good guys win.

For her part, Weisz acquits herself capably and can pull off a convincing Queens accent, though it feels at times more like an impression than a performance. Wilkinson is also his usual excellent self, but it is Spall who steals the film. Beneath the veneer of a polite, snaggletoothed British gentleman, he oozes menace. In those moments when the film allows him to offer a peak of the monster hidden inside, Denial is at its best. 

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