Courtroom dramas demand a full quota of theatrics and two compelling sides of an argument.
The defamation case brought in 1996 by British author David Irving against an American academic, Deborah Lipstadt, had plenty of the former and, understandably, not much of the latter.
Irving accused Lipstadt of libeling him in her book, Denying the Holocaust, published two years earlier. He brought the case after disrupting her during a lecture at an American university.
Freedom of speech rights in the US curb most attempts to pursue libel cases, but British law is more sympathetic to plaintiffs. For a start, the onus is on defendants to prove their statements are not defamatory.
So the case was held in London, with Irving acting in his own defence while Lipstadt and Penguin (the British publisher) employed a team of lawyers, including top silk Richard Rampton, QC.
The case was widely publicised at the time.
Justice Charles Gray wrote a 333-page decision before delivering a brief verbal decision in 2000.
It didn’t end there. Lipstadt wrote another book on her experience, History on Trial, My Day in Court with David Irving, while two others were produced, including one by an expert for the defence, Richard J. Evans.
All this is in Denial (Hopscotch/ Entertainment One) in a tightly written script by dramatist and director David Hare (The Reader, The Hours and Johnny Worricker Spy trilogy).
The story starts with the first confrontation between Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), a specialist in Jewish history, and Irving (Timothy Spall) at a university in Georgia and methodically moves through the pre-trial issues under the leadership of Rampton (Tom Wilkinson).
At this early stage, Rampton decides the defence case can only be won on legal issues and is not about a debate about the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews.
In the most disturbing scenes, the defence team tours the Auschwitz death camp in the depths of a Polish winter. This reveals Rampton’s dedication to detail, while also showing him determined not to allow emotion to cloud his belief that the case is legal and not historical.
To this end, and to the distraught Lipstadt’s disappointment, he decides not to put her up as a witness. This also applies to evidence from Holocaust survivors. Instead, the case against Irving comes from historians and experts, who seek to establish his distortion of events is not just opinion or error, but deliberate and malicious. Irving’s case is built around pointing out contradictions or lapses in the defence case, such as whether Auschwitz had gas chambers (“No holes, no Holocaust” was a poster during the trial); and that the accusations against him as a “denier” has ruined his reputation and therefore his ability to make a living.
He does not have prove the truth or otherwise of his opinions and at one stage the judge agrees he has a right to believe in them. Director Mick Jackson has done a workmanlike job while the script and performances do all that is required.
Rating: Mature audience. 109 minutes.