One thing is not in dispute about “Denial”: We in Jewish Atlanta want it to be great.
After all, the movie is about one of our own, Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt, confronting a manifestation of evil, Holocaust denier David Irving, in a landmark libel defense largely financed by members of our community.
It’s an important, well-made, entertaining and educational film, but it’s not great.
It is good, however, starting with strong performances by all the main actors: Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt, Timothy Spall as Irving, Andrew Scott as solicitor Anthony Julius and, especially, Tom Wilkinson as barrister Richard Rampton.
Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography is just as strong as the acting. The visuals are best when Lipstadt’s team visits Auschwitz, applying a gray palette with details such as raindrops dripping off barbed wire like tears.
The story alone is worth 110 minutes and the price of admission. It’s based on Lipstadt’s book about the libel case in 2000, “History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier.” The title of the film references both Irving’s denial of the Holocaust and Lipstadt’s denial of her desire to take the stand in her own defense.
In case you miss the second part of the title, David Hare’s script includes a scene that smacks you in the head by mentioning Lipstadt’s “self-denial,” then repeatedly shows how big a struggle it is for her to stay silent through the trial.
That script fails to rise to the importance and drama of the case, largely because it struggles to focus on what makes the trial important and where the drama arises.
The differences in the American and English legal systems are one source of trouble. An American audience has to be told that the burden of proof in a libel case is on the defense, that a solicitor takes the case while a barrister argues it, and that everyone wears goofy wigs and starts court by bowing.
It all could have been handled in five minutes. Instead, Hare’s script makes Lipstadt’s bewilderment and eventual embrace of the British system a major theme, even trying to milk drama out of the 24-hour delay between the release of the judge’s decision to the lawyers and the announcement in court.
The focus on procedure means less time for actual testimony. In a trial that lasts eight weeks, we see Irving poke holes in the testimony of an Auschwitz expert (but not the expert’s response), and we get a couple of Irving’s embarrassing moments. Almost as much time is devoted to Team Lipstadt’s struggles over whether to call survivors to testify (and submit them to certain ridicule under Irving’s questioning) as is given to events inside the courtroom — the things we want and need to see.
Another flaw in the approach of Hare and director Mick Jackson is inconsistency. For the most part, we see a courtroom drama of manners, but twice, at Auschwitz and during testimony about a gas chamber, Lipstadt has a ghostly vision of the horrors being described. Showing us those nightmares through her eyes could be an effective approach if done throughout the film; using the trick twice for a total of about five seconds just pulls the viewer out of the reality of the situation.
The film also strays from the Holocaust and Irving’s anti-Semitism and racism to explore his sexism. That appears to be the reason Lipstadt twice ponders London’s statue of Boadicea, an obscure figure for American audiences. Irving may very well be a sexist, but the trial is about Holocaust denial.
Sadly, it appears that the filmmakers weren’t confident enough in the appeal of a Holocaust courtroom drama in 2016, and their effort to broaden the appeal of “Denial” weakens the movie.
But Lipstadt is still a hero, and her story is worth seeing.