Truth, as we know, can be stranger than fiction. One piece of evidence is the fascinating, affecting courtroom drama Denial. Scripted by the eminent British playwright David Hare and directed by Mick Jackson (L.A. Story), it recounts the real-life saga of a 1996 lawsuit in which truth itself was put on trial.
Rachel Weisz plays Atlanta professor and author Deborah E. Lipstadt. In 1993, she published Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. One of the deniers named in her book was English historian David Irving, an admirer of Adolf Hitler who'd made a name for himself by claiming that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz and the Holocaust was a hoax.
In a pivotal early scene, Irving and a small crew pay a surprise visit to one of Lipstadt's speaking engagements. With cameras trained on him, Irving stands, holds up a wad of cash and offers $1,000 "to the first person who can prove that Adolf Hitler ordered the extermination of Jews." He considers it a victory when Lipstadt has security escort him out.
It's difficult to imagine anyone other than gifted shape-shifter Timothy Spall taking on Irving's role. Is there another actor capable of simultaneously projecting intelligence, haughtiness and that certain rodent-like quality we've come to associate with him? That last attribute serves the performer particularly well here. His character is not merely an anti-Semitic creep; he's an academic who's been discredited and backed into a corner. You can look into his eyes and see clearly that he feels trapped like a rat.
In a last-ditch effort to salvage his reputation, Irving sues Lipstadt for libel, claiming that her characterization of him as a distorter of facts has damaged his career. Cannily, he brings the lawsuit in Britain rather than the U.S., giving himself a potentially insurmountable advantage. In England, libel law is the mirror image of our own. The burden of proof is on the defendant. One is guilty until proven innocent.
This means that Lipstadt's solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), and barrister, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), must prove to a judge not only that Irving's claims concerning the Holocaust are untrue but that he knew them to be. Talk about a tall order. Imagine the ramifications should they fail. Suddenly it would be acceptable to dismiss the suffering of millions as mere myth.
The filmmakers expertly guide the viewer through the alien workings of the UK's legal system while charting the shifting dynamics between client and advocates. The most complex and arresting of these is the relationship between Lipstadt and Rampton. Initially he strikes her as aloof and insensitive to the desire of survivors to testify. Over time, though, Lipstadt begins to realize she may have mistaken the lawyer's focus and concentration for coldness.
Wilkinson brings an unforced gravitas to the part, in the process providing the movie's moral center. The case may be based on an accumulation of minutiae, but his arguments are eloquent and charged with righteous indignation. It's worth noting that every word of courtroom dialogue was taken verbatim from trial records.
For her part, Weisz delivers one of the least glam and most accomplished portrayals of her career. She's borderline unrecognizable with her character's curly red hair and heavy Queens accent. In an exceptional scene, Lipstadt has drinks with Rampton and confesses that she's struggled to entrust her conscience to a stranger. Now, though, she says, she feels ready to place it in his hands. Wilkinson doesn't say a word. He doesn't have to. The look they exchange says it all.
Silence. That's good writing.