The best courtroom dramas are riveting intellectual thrillers. They’re about legal and moral puzzles heroically assembled, piece by piece, in a flow of interlocking information. That’s true of such classic films as “12 Angry Men,” “Anatomy of a Murder,” or “The Verdict,” and it was true of last year’s superb “Woman in Gold,” in which Helen Mirren played a Jewish refugee who fought, in the courts of Austria and the U.S., to reclaim a legendary Klimt painting stolen from her family 60 years before by the Nazis.
Considering that legacy, “Denial,” a drama based on recent Holocaust history — or, in fact, on the denial of it — would seem to have the makings of a terrific movie. It’s about the British libel suit that was brought, in 1996, against Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, by David Irving, the British historian who Lipstadt accused of being a Holocaust denier. Outside of the context of a London courtroom, there was little ambiguity about Irving’s writings and speeches: He was — and remains — a Holocaust denier. One who’s proudly invested in his beliefs and makes no attempt to hide them. He claims that there were never gas chambers at Auschwitz. He claims (for a while, he soft-pedaled this) that Hitler had no plans to decimate European Jewry. He claims that photographs of Holocaust victims taken by Allied soldiers in 1945 only prove that those soldiers, and not the Germans, were responsible for the killings.
If you look up almost any video on YouTube of David Irving spouting his poison (there are lots of them), you can feel like you’re watching the hate version of a man claiming that the Earth is flat. Essentially, Irving is a conspiracy theorist. (If you deny the Holocaust, you’re saying that a lot of people have banded together to tell a very big lie.) In “Denial,” when Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), a 49-year-old history professor at Emory University in Atlanta, first hears that she’s being sued, she’s upset, but also incredulous. In America, the ultimate defense against libel is the truth, and the truth she most definitely has on her side. Irving, who drives a Rolls and has gotten wealthy off his books (no one ever said that Holocaust denial is unprofitable), is played by Timothy Spall with the grin of a mad duke and a demagogic bluster that makes him at once friendly and impervious.
As it turns out, the rules of legal engagement are a lot different in England. In a British libel suit, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Lipstadt must demonstrate that what she wrote about Irving in her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust,” is valid. In an age where facts have been reduced to data, and where what was once called “reality” now competes with different versions of reality (i.e., in the age of Donald Trump), this would seem to set the stage for an invigorating drama about truth, the Holocaust, and the solemn potency of the law. But for all the powerful relevance of its subject, “Denial,” directed by Mick Jackson from a script by David Hare, never finds its grip. It’s a curiously awkward and slipshod movie that winds up being about nothing so much as the perverse, confounding eccentricities of the British legal system.
Rachel Weisz, who can be a great actress, plays Lipstadt in reddish-orange curls that hang down on either side of her face like a tent, and she speaks in a flat blaring Queens accent that, when you first hear it, sounds authentic enough, but her tone of voice never varies. Her performance rarely shakes off the quality of being an acting exercise. Early on, Lipstadt stands in front of a class and asks her students how, exactly, they can be so sure that the Holocaust happened. A young woman replies “Photographic evidence,” and drifting back to the horrifying footage of the death camps, you think, “Yes, good answer.” But then Lipstadt makes a fascinating point. She says that there exists not one photograph of a Holocaust victim inside a gas chamber — and that’s because the Nazis didn’t allow any such images to be taken. That chilling fact, planted early in the movie, sets up a suspenseful question, one that will theoretically rule the courtroom drama to come: How do you prove that the Holocaust happened?
The obvious answer should be: You do it by presenting the inexorably vast historical record — the Nazi orders and concentration-camp files and train schedules and testimony of witnesses, from the German guards to the Sonderkommandos to the survivors. Lipstadt arrives in London, where she meets Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), the British solicitor she has hired to run her legal defense. He’s a defamation expert who also happened to win Princess Diana her divorce, and he insists on some peculiar parameters.
He refuses to put any Holocaust survivors on the stand, because he says that they’ll be “humiliated” — and the first sign that the movie is heading off the tracks is that Hare’s script barely clarifies what that means. Is Julius worried about the well-being of the witnesses? (He needn’t be.) Or is he worried that their testimony won’t play? (Why wouldn’t it?) He then tells Lipstadt that she can’t testify either. This seems bizarre, and not just because she’s under attack. The full title of her book is “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” and she could testify — precisely, definitively — about all the things that David Irving has falsified. The bare bones of this situation are accurate (in the trial, neither Lipstadt nor any survivors testified). But the way that it’s explained — badly — almost makes it seem as if Lipstadt’s lawyer, too, wants to engage in a genteel form of Holocaust denial.
The team’s key courtroom player is Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), a dour Scottish libel lawyer, and the second sign that the film is going off the tracks is the scene in which he and Lipstadt visit Auschwitz, scouting it for “evidence.” The camp itself, with its barb wire and chimney and iconic train tracks, is a looming monument of horror, but even as they’re standing on the collapsed roof of the former gas chamber, it should be clear to anyone that nothing in the 50-year-old remains of Auschwitz can prove that the Holocaust happened. How could it? It’s a bunch of old buildings, and the Nazis detonated the crematorium before the end of the war. Yet the way “Denial” treats the physical fact of Auschwitz as if it could prove something — the way it merges the evidentiary and the mythic — indicates that the film’s basic dramatic sense isn’t all there.
The crucial thing missing is what should be the essence of a courtroom drama: our immersion in how Lipstadt’s lawyers stake out their strategy. We keep hearing, rather tediously, about what they’re not going to do, but we hear next to nothing about what they are going to do. Andrew Scott’s performance as Julius is woefully unconvincing — he doesn’t seem like a devoted lawyer, he seems like a myopic corporate putz. In court, Irving insists on representing himself, which results in a lot of hollow fire. He wheels out one of his favorite tropes: that there were “no holes” in the ceilings of the alleged gas chambers, so there’s no way that Zyklon B cyanide pellets could have been dropped into them. (Actually, the holes were there, recorded in blueprints and photographs.)
Finally, out of nowhere, Rampton stands up before the judge and begins to present bits and pieces of meticulously researched evidence that the Holocaust actually happened, and that David Irving faked his research in order to deny it. The wording of a letter, written by Heinrich Himmler, about train transports was changed by Irving to make it sound as if the trains weren’t delivering death cargos — and that Hitler never knew about them. Protecting Hitler, it turns out, is Irving’s driving obsession. He’s a cultist who fixated on the Führer when he was eight years old, and he never let go. When the evidence starts to come out in court, the trial swings Lipstadt’s way.
The strange thing is, she has nothing to do with presenting, or even preparing, any of it. Hare’s script gets tripped up on the basic rules of screenwriting, and Jackson pastes scenes together with Scotch Tape, yet there’s a moment when the movie announces its big “theme”: Lipstadt gets told that sitting tight, saying nothing, keeping herself out of the trial will win the case. What she must practice, in a word, is denial. Get it? It’s one of those tidy/clever David Hare literary puns. Yet to live up to that pun, the movie reduces Lipstadt to a passive agent in her own story, a mere bystander. By the end of “Denial,” it’s gratifying to see a historical snake-oil salesman like David Irving get taken down. (He’s now hawking holiday tours of concentration camps — that’s not a joke.) But the larger issue, of how a historical lie tries to become truth, barely gets brushed.