Recreating a celebrated defamation case

Directed by Mick Jackson
Written by David Hare
Rated M, 110 minutes
4 stars

Seventeen years later, the defamation case brought by British Holocaust denier David Irving against American Jewish scholar Deborah Lipstadt in 2000 still throbs with relevance. The case promised to relegate the once-prominent Irving to the margins, his credibility as an historian in tatters, or so it seemed during the well-publicised High Court trial in London. If only.

Irving bragged in the British press last year, before this film came out, that the Holocaust denial business is booming. The internet, he said, had brought him a whole new generation of followers. He was answering 300 to 400 emails a day from American teenagers who have watched his speeches on YouTube. Most of them support Trump, he said. Like that’s a surprise. In the art of fake news, the headline-chasing Irving is an expert.

It’s a film of many pleasures beyond relevance. For those who love the law, there is the fun of seeing a High Court defamation case recreated in full flight: the armies of bright young things poring over mountains of paper, as their superiors sniff another fine glass of thought-clarifying claret in chambers. Horace Rumpole would have enjoyed Tom Wilkinson’s superb performance as Richard Rampton, QC, defending Ms Lipstadt and Penguin Books against self-taught blowhard Irving (Timothy Spall). Wilkinson plays Rampton as a quiet warrior, little concerned with making anyone feel comfortable, starting with his client. He’s not there to prove the Holocaust took place – as she wants – but to prove that Irving is a liar. For his part, Spall brings the proper weight for Irving – an infuriating sense of British certainty, his courtly manners masking a snarling junkyard dog beneath.

The curious charm of English defamation law – in which the burden of proof rests with the defendant – strikes Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) as bizarre. We have a presumption of innocence in the US, she tells Anthony Julius, her solicitor (Andrew Scott). Not in the UK, he explains. He is there to win, and if that means keeping her off the stand, so be it.

A short prologue in the US establishes the background. After 30 years of rewriting Nazi history in a series of books that have made him rich, Irving’s views on the Holocaust have hardened from sceptic to denial. Lipstadt, a professor of Holocaust Studies, has written her own book on the history of Holocaust denial, in which she calls Irving a racist and anti-Semite. He stands up unannounced at one of her lectures and offers $1000 in cash to anyone who can show him a document proving that Hitler knew about, or planned, the Holocaust. She refuses to debate him – or anyone who denies the Holocaust – but his lawsuit gives her a field of battle. She moves to London to prepare. Apart from a couple of brief and chilling scenes where Rampton goes to see Auschwitz for himself, the whole film takes place in London.

As courtroom dramas go, this is a good one, more sober than most because there’s no jury. Irving represents himself, his confidence driven by ego. Alex Jennings, as the judge Sir Charles Gray, presides like the Sphinx, giving nothing away. Veteran director Mick Jackson, returning to the big screen after almost two decades in television, keeps tightening the pressure inherent in David Hare’s lean script. Movies about courts, especially American courts, are rarely this procedural or strategic or clear-eyed about the path to victory. It’s about a momentous question and a monstrous lie, but the lawyers don’t think about that. They’re gunfighters, in a more civilised form of the western.