It is the mid-nineteen-nineties, and Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) is a historian who specialises in the Holocaust, frequently having to tell her students of the beliefs of deniers in that atrocity to expose them as the lies they are. But not everyone agrees, and one of the most prominent of the deniers is the self-taught historian David Irving (Timothy Spall) who has a habit of addressing meetings sympathetic to his ideas and further than that, accusing those who speak up against him of libelling him. Lipstadt has had dealings with him before as he showed up at a talk she was giving to show off and shout her down, though she refused to rise to the bait. However, when she mentions him in a book about Holocaust denial, he pounces on her words and takes legal action...
Although not everyone remembers it, the trial of Deborah Lipstadt versus David Irving was a real event, and big news at the time, which was for a few weeks in the year 2000, the case having taken around four years to see the inside of a court. The outcome was well-reported, though this film, essentially an old-fashioned courtroom drama with very contemporary worries, takes the approach that the audience would not be aware of the result, so that if you were unaware and had sufficiently been caught up it would be sufficiently suspenseful as David Hare's script gave either side a chance at the upper hand until the verdict was announced. Perhaps that verdict was not too surprising, though the crux according to the judge, Sir Charles Gray (Alex Jennings), could be more whether Irving was lying if he genuinely believed the lies he peddled.
Many sympathetic to the film pointed out at the time it was released that there was never a more relevant point for this to re-enter the public debate, as the whole concept of truth was under assault from those with a contrary bent, and their numbers were growing. This had been gathering in pressure since the World Trade Center attack in 2001, where some would accuse the United States Government of doing the deed in spite of the weight of evidence that it was Islamic Fundamentalist terrorists who exploited lax security circumstances to carry it out, but also tied into an insidious scepticism that had anything from the Moon Landings being faked to whether comedian Sinbad had starred in a kids' movie called Shazam! in the nineties, the internet propagating a culture of non-belief in spite of all evidence as a badge of pride. Even the President of the United States was at it.
So there was more at stake here than even proving the Holocaust happened, if you can imagine that, though Denial was chiefly concerning itself with Lipstadt's court battle where she refused to settle and went ahead to defend herself. Irving (Spall skilfully playing him with the confidence of a self-described authority, with all the issues that raised) chose a London court to hold the trial, knowing that the libel laws needed proof from the accused and not the accuser, which was rather trickier, but Lipstadt goes to the lawyer who settled Princess Diana's divorce against the Royal Family, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott, by turns reticent and incisive, an excellent performance), to fight for her. He likes the challenge, but to actually represent her in the courtroom they turn to barrister Richard Rampton, played by Tom Wilkinson and equally fine in an initially hard to read delivery, until we can perceive the intellect beneath his exterior. Weisz, too, had obviously studied the real Lipstadt and channelled her mannerisms into a superb focal point.
That in spite of Lipstadt never taking the stand, for her team advised her against it since it would give Irving his opportunity to exploit his views and potentially give a platform to them. She is unhappy with this, and even less happy when the team decide no Holocaust survivors appear as witnesses either, surely she believes the ultimate proof of her correctness. But again, this would be precisely what Irving wants to spread his untruths, and better they be shot down with facts and logic rather than lies and prejudice. Yet another form of correctness, political correctness, arises as the public's disdain for anything regarded as denying them their own little (and not so little) prejudices an airing is subtly characterised as what gave Irving his oxygen; add that to the movement to shoot down "so-called" experts in flames as a victory for what they termed common sense against what should really be obvious to any reasonable point of view, backed up by major facts now under siege from the poison of disbelief, and it made it all the more imperative that Lipstadt should claim victory. This was not a flashy film, it only allowed two or three of moments of deep emotions to bubble up, but it was measured, intelligent and, in its unassuming manner, important. Music by Howard Shore.
[There is a making of featurette on the Entertainment One DVD, too short but better than nothing.]