In “Denial” (2016), David Hare has written the type of courthouse screenplay that I love: dialogue dense, dualistic, and inspirational. The cross-examination is biting and the litigator is crafty and skilled. Tom Wilkinson is the trial lawyer you will come to love. Atticus Finch may even come to mind, but Wilkinson’s British character develops more slowly. In one sequence as barrister Richard Rampton, he comes off a tad disrespectful when he steps on a segment of barbed wire at Auschwitz, and emotes with “shit” at the shrine. That same barbed wire section becomes a symbol for the small part he will play in honoring Holocaust victims by not putting them on trial. One pricked sole does not equate with the mounds of broken shoes left by the gassed souls of millions.
As a respected libel attorney, Rampton must keep his American client apprised of British law, where you are guilty until proven innocent. The renown American Jewish scholar, Deborah Lipstadt, has called Holocaust denier and Hitler’s apologist David Irving a name or two. Now, accused of libel, she must prove her name-calling truth.
And what an uplift to see a polished, erudite woman, ( Rachel Weisz ) after my last review where emotionally stunted woman fill the screen! At one point, she refuses to bow to the magistrate: ” I’m an American.” This Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies blanches in horror when her accuser pontificates that ” to be called a ‘denier’ is a verbal Yellow Star.”
In “Denial” the British Weisz is the epitome of the righteous American with her New York accent and her combative stance. Her assuredness, her spunk , and her passion light-up the screen. The occasional glimpse of hubris is welcomed in this Emory University academic and author. It makes the audience understand how difficult it was for her to “stand down” and let her legal team lead and strategize. She must deny her wish to publicly confront the anti-Semite in court. Here the film’s title becomes a double-edged sword.
Her nemesis and the Brit who sued Lipstadt for libel is David Irving ( Tim Spall). Spall is grand at playing flawed individuals, whose hubris attributes to their fall. He shows a range of human emotions, yet his anti-Semitic beliefs stun us years after Hitler. As “a falsifier of history”, he is dangerous.
Wilkerson, as the Queen’s Counsel (QC) , does not want his defendant to testify. “We want to starve him ( Irving); you (testifying ) would feed him.” Lipstadt’s emotional satisfaction in debunking him must be stayed to win the case. She reluctantly plays with the team, and sees Rampton no longer as rude and heartless, but as a disciplined winner. In a lovely moment, Lipstadt states,” I have handed over my conscience to you- a Scottish, wine-drinking fisherman.”
The defense team manipulates a No-jury trial. Rampton uses Irving’s pride with the rhetorical remark:” Can you ( Irving) expect the jurors to learn all you know- all you have spent a lifetime learning?!”
On April 11, 2011, the thirty-two day trial ends with a three-hundred -plus paged verdict. Here, I noted one production mistake: the British magistrate misspelled ” judgement” as the American “judgment” ~ a minor flaw that only an English teacher would see, but the “tea and biscuit lord” would never use the American spelling of “judgment”.
The sequences at Auschwitz are both aerial and immediate. Crematorium #2 is haunting and hallowed. We are emerced in roof holes and floor drains, and Nazi logistics, and cyanide crystals. Director Mick Jackson keeps the pace both suspenseful and thoughtful, not an easy task. I especially liked the hazy pictures of vaguely moving human forms in the clouds as Jewish prayers are recited.
See a true story on the big screen with nods to fact-checking and our current political lying scene. See how diary-keeping has its minuses, and meet Anthony Julius ( Andrew Scott ), Princess Diana’s divorce attorney. But, most of all, see David Irving, provocateur and lover of Hitler never get to put the Holocaust on trial, nor legitimize himself because of able trial lawyers. Litigators of the world, take notes.