Denial Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson. Directed by Mick Jackson. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday in select theaters.
“This isn’t about memorializing; it’s about forensics,” one of Deborah Lipstadt’s lawyers tells her as they’re in the middle of preparing Lipstadt’s defense against British Holocaust denier David Irving, and Denial struggles with that same balance. The true story of the long libel case brought in 1996 by Irving (Timothy Spall) against Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an American academic who criticized him in her book about Holocaust denial, is a fascinating legal and historical milestone, but director Mick Jackson and screenwriter David Hare (working from Lipstadt’s own book about the trial) have trouble finding an angle to present it.
Much of the movie is framed as a procedural, as Lipstadt learns to navigate the very different world of British libel laws, in which the accused is essentially guilty until proven innocent, required to prove that their statements were factual and correct. Dialogue in the courtroom scenes is even taken directly from trial transcripts, and Spall brings out Irving’s unctuous self-regard within the context of his pretensions to dispassionate historical research. Outside of the courtroom, though, none of the characters are particularly well-rounded, and the efforts to create a rapport between Lipstadt and the lawyer who presents her argument in court (played by Tom Wilkinson) are pretty thin.
Then there are the moments when the movie stops to pay tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, something that Lipstadt’s legal team won’t allow her to do in court. The lawyers understand the way that emotional appeals might undermine their case, but the filmmakers aren’t that pragmatic, and they throw in some somber moments as Lipstadt and her associates visit Auschwitz, and a couple of fraught meetings between Lipstadt and a group of survivors. But Denial doesn’t have the space for anything more than a superficial treatment of that complex legacy, and the scenes end up doing a disservice to the enormity of the survivor experience. When it sticks to facts and legal arguments, Denial has a certain pull, but as drama, it falls short.