Truth is debatable. Facts are not. As Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) puts it in Mick Jackson’s adaptation of her book “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial,” “Elvis is dead, climate change is real, and the Holocaust happened.” There is no point in arguing, so why does a once-respected historian such as David Irving persist in pushing a perverse “truth” about such an established fact? And how does he get away with it?
Those two questions remain unanswered in this dramatization of Irving’s suit against Lipstadt for libel for calling him to task in her 1993 book “Denying the Holocaust.” This is regrettable especially at a time when bullying, lies, racism, misogyny, and a disregard for reality in favor of ideology have become so much a part of political discourse.
But the omission is out of necessity, because that’s what happened. Lipstadt’s legal team, headed by dour and deadly barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson at his dourest and deadliest), had determined that the best strategy for Lipstadt’s defense was to silence her, not to have her take the stand and confront her accuser and so give him the platform to present his version of reality.
Hence the denial of the title refers not so much to Irving’s, but to Lipstadt’s — her self-denial in the cause of furthering the case.
As such, the film works adequately as a historical drama. Jackson opens up what is essentially a courtroom drama with a visit to Auschwitz, which, shot under unforgiving gray skies, brings the viewer back to the void that the trial is all about. But this image diminishes the importance of Lipstadt’s conflict between the rage to speak up and the need to remain silent. Despite screenwriter David Hare’s sharp dialogue, the portrayal remains two-dimensional.
But Spall’s performance as Irving is a nuanced masterpiece of patriarchal monstrosity. He puts his character’s essential anti-Semitism and his methods of boorishness and intimidation on the docket and show them for what they are — the pernicious lies of a hateful ideologue.
Directed by Mick Jackson. Written by David Hare, based on Deborah Lipstadt’s book “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial.” Starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, West Newton. 110 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for thematic material and brief strong language).Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.