Denial is based on the real libel action in 2000 when David Irving sued an American academic, Deborah Lipstadt, for comments she made about him in her book on Holocaust denial. Irving was well known for having delved deeply into primary source material of the Third Reich. The question for the court was whether his conclusion that there had been no systematic gassing of people at Auschwitz was entirely genuine or whether he had falsified information from those archives and was motivated by anti-Semitism.
It can be difficult to create dramatic tension when we already know who won. There is a scene at a London dinner party with Jewish people (cue: irony) who ask Professor Lipstadt to settle the case. She refuses. She and the lawyers debate several times whether to call survivors to give evidence, the lawyers overruling their client on the grounds they might make poor witnesses and they should not endure being cross-examined by Irving, who was representing himself.
Although Lipstadt says that historical disputes are not well-suited to the court room, this is a court room drama. But a movie needs visuals. The Holocaust itself provides visuals. The barristers fly to Poland with their lay client to gather their own evidence by visiting Auschwitz, on a snowy day when they have the place to themselves. In due course leading counsel uses his personal research effectively to give evidence in the course of cross-examination. Whether or not Irving falsified history is not obviously ‘visual’ though John Sessions as Professor Evans does what he can in the witness box to illustrate mis-translations of Himmler’s diaries.
The film is another example of the increasingly common habit of portraying living people on screen. One does not imagine that Richard Rampton QC would object to being introduced in the film as ‘the most skilful advocate in the country’ and he does appear masterly in court. Thereafter he inhabits a palatial room in chambers and is never seen outside court without a drink in his hand. Key to the whole proceedings is the solicitor, Anthony Julius, smooth, calm and utterly sure of himself. In the role of instructing solicitor he wears bands beneath his shirt collar. For some reason those dinner party guests don’t trust him.
What keeps the film going are three stunning performances. I have never met the three main male characters, but Tom Wilkinson as Rampton, Andrew Scott as Julius and Timothy Spall as Irving are completely convincing in themselves in their portrayals of what such men would be like in these circumstances. Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt is a keen jogger. On her runs she keeps winding up in front of the statue of Queen Boudica, noble and in command. In court (filmed at Surrey County Hall) against a litigant in person, she has behind her two counsel, a formidable solicitors’ firm, all respectable academic opinion and the sympathy of the entire audience. There is a good moment when she enters a room full of her lawyers and academics and they are almost all men in suits. There is one bright young woman who has been working hard on the case but the moment she opens her mouth, Julius interrupts her.
Reviewer David Wurtzel, Counsel Editorial Board