Two different kinds of denial are the focus of the Rachel Weisz-starring film with that title, one expected and one not. It’s the one that’s not expected that provides the most dramatic heft.
Given that the narrative here is based on American academic Deborah Lipstadt’s book, “History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier,” it’s no surprise that the heart of things is the infamous 1996 libel action brought against Lipstadt in the British legal system by David Irving, the denier in question.
But playwright David Hare, who did the script, perhaps recognized that a film about a six-year legal battle, however significant, proving that the Holocaust happened could use a little help in the dramatic department. So he has emphasized as well an element of self-denial that Weisz’s Lipstadt is forced to contend with, and that has been all to the good.
Even so, and even with strong work by both Weisz and costars Timothy Spall (in a nervy performance as Irving) and Tom Wilkinson (barrister Richard Rampton), “Denial” is not without its difficulties.
At times awkwardly directed by Mick Jackson, who did the Kevin Costner-starring “The Bodyguard” and the Emmy-winning “Temple Grandin,” “Denial” periodically plays like a standard-issue drama.
But because Hare’s script grapples with serious themes and singular events whose ramifications are still being felt, it is effective when it counts.
Lipstadt is introduced where she is most at home, in the classroom at Emory University in Atlanta, where she teaches a course on the Holocaust and wrote a book called “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.”
The book names Irving, a military historian who has said that “more people died in Senator Kennedy’s car in Chappaquiddick than died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz,” as a Nazi apologist who claimed the Holocaust did not take place.
Even in these early scenes Lipstadt (well-played by Weisz, down to the cadences of a Queens accent) is shown to be a powerful individual, smart, articulate and assertive when she needs to be.
Still, Lipstadt is surprised when Irving, very much of a showman, appears at one of her book events loudly proclaiming “I’ve got a thousand dollars in my pocket I’ll give to anyone who can prove Hitler ordered the killing of the Jews.”
Even more shocking was a letter to Lipstadt from Penguin Books, her British publisher, saying Irving had sued Penguin and her, claiming that her book libeled him and did damage to his reputation as a professional historian.
Libel laws in Britain, as Lipstadt soon finds out, are different than in the United States. There is no presumption of innocence in the U.K., the burden of proof is on Lipstadt not only to prove that what she wrote was true but also that any mistakes Irving made were deliberate.
Named by her mother after a biblical judge and prophet, Lipstadt decides that this is her moment to defend the Jewish people. Eager for combat, she goes to London, where she finds out that almost everything she assumed is wrong.
While Irving plans to act as his own lawyer, Lipstadt will get the help of a top legal team headed by solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), the strategic planner who helped Princess Diana with her divorce, and barrister Rampton, who will do the actual arguing in court.
Though Lipstadt clearly visualized herself in a heroic role in the trial, even jogging past the London Embankment statue of the warrior queen Boadicea, the reality solicitor Julius sets out for her is quite different.
Intent on winning the case and acutely aware of potential pitfalls in the British legal system, Julius tells Lipstadt that not only isn’t she going to be allowed to testify, she can’t even give interviews. More than that, determined to keep the focus on Irving and not the Holocaust, he has no plans to put any survivors on the stand.
Lipstadt’s reaction to all of this is not even-keeled. “Why the hell not?” she asks when told she can’t testify. For a woman who says what she thinks and has never trusted anyone to do anything on her behalf, this defense-mandated self-denial goes against her every instinct, and this, Hare has shrewdly seen, is where a lot of drama resides.
“These things are happening to you, but the case is not about you,” the implacable Rampton tells her. When she angrily tells him people will think she’s a coward, he evenly replies, “that’s the price you pay for winning. What feels best is not necessarily what works best.”
If and how Lipstadt makes her peace with all this, along with the gripping way things go in the courtroom, is what “Denial” is all about. Great issues can make up for not great filmmaking, and that is what happens here.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material and brief strong language.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Playing Arclight, Hollywood, Landmark, West Los Angeles.