Could you prove the Holocaust happened? That’s the deceptively simple challenge facing Emory University professor and historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) in “Denial,” the excellent fact-based drama from Mick Jackson (“The Bodyguard”) and super-adapter David Hare (“The Reader”; “The Hours”).
Back in 1993, Lipstadt inadvertently sews the seeds of that conundrum when she refers to Hitler scholar David Irving (Timothy Spall) as a Holocaust denier in her book about the Holocaust denial movement, accusations that prompt him and two aides to ambush her at an Atlanta reading in the film’s electric opening sequence.
Three years later, Irving sues Lipstadt and Penguin, her British publisher, for libel. Refuting his claim seems easy enough, but Britain’s laws place the burden of proof on Lipstadt to show that the charge is true – a daunting task for which she hires solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson).
As the defense team researches what it’s up against and plots its strategy, revealing much of their individual personalities in the process, Jackson shows minimal signs of rust in his first directorial effort since 2010’s HBO movie “Temple Grandin.” The sudden shift from dull London offices to the immense power of Auschwitz is an especially masterful move and one whose intensity carries over to the taut courtroom scenes that dominate the film’s second half.
On the heels of “The Lobster,” “The Light Between Oceans” and “Complete Unknown,” Weisz is quietly making a case for Performer of the Year, and her channeling of Lipstadt’s deep personal strain in the face of eschewing seemingly common sense approaches to improve their chances of winning arguably makes this work her best of the lot.
Impressive still is another astounding turn by Spall, quite possibly cinema’s most underrated actor. Noticeably gaunt compared with his usual pleasant plumpness, his frightening take on Irving is one of eerie calm concealing much below the surface and he owns the screen whenever upon it.
While the suspense that the slippery Irving – representing himself in court – may do something unexpected or Rampton may accidentally slip up keep “Denial” riveting even for viewers aware of its outcome, the amount of evidence produced in the courtroom proving the Holocaust happened feels somewhat low, especially for a trial that lasts just shy of two months.
Examples of Irving literally rewriting history in subsequent editions of his books – the highlighting of which by Rampton make for some of the film’s most thrillingly damning moments – are also sadly few, though in the service of smart cinematic storytelling and lively pacing, such omissions may largely be forgiven.