2016 Certificate: 12

Synopsis

American academic Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) finds herself in a British courtroom after self-styled historian and Hitler apologist David Irving (Timothy Spall) accuses her of libel when she brands him a Holocaust denier. Under English law, the burden of proof falls on the defendant so it's up to Lipstadt and her legal team - icily efficient solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and ruthless barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) - to show the genocide really occurred.

Director

  • Mick Jackson

Cast

  • Rachel Weisz

  • Timothy Spall

  • Tom Wilkinson

  • Andrew Scott

  • Jack Lowden

  • Caren Pistorius

  • Mark Gatiss

Review

In an era of "alternative facts" this riveting account of the libel case brought by historian David Irving against an American academic when she declared him a Holocaust denier couldn't be more timely.

In 1996, Irving filed a libel suit against writer Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books for publishing the British edition of her book Denying the Holocaust in which she branded him a Holocaust denier and bigot who manipulated and distorted real documents.

Lipstadt - sparkily played by Rachel Weisz - ignores advice to settle out of court (under UK libel laws she is presumed guilty until proven innocent) and hires prestigious solicitor Anthony Julius (Scott), the lawyer who acted for Princess Diana in her divorce.

Now in the position of not only defending Lipstadt herself but establishing beyond doubt that the Holocaust took place, Julius brings barrister Richard Rampton (Wilkinson) on board to face Irving (Spall), who has opted to represent himself.

Screenwriter David Hare engagingly traces developments from the increasingly agitated viewpoint of Lipstadt as her British legal team moves in baffling ways that only slowly reveal the method in their lawyerly mindset.

For a start, the icily pragmatic Julius refuses to let Holocaust victims take the stand as he doesn't want them "humiliated" by the poisonously anti-Semitic Irving. Then she falls out with Rampton as she considers his behaviour ignorant while on a visit to Auschwitz, the death camp Irving maintains did not feature murderous gas chambers.

Spall plays Irving as an clubbable gent, hoping to tip the wink to the judge but ultimately undone by some luridly racist evidence unearthed by Julius's fresh-faced team, including a bigoted ditty sung to his young daughter, and his blind adherence to an existing conspiracy theory posited by a discredited pseudo-scientist.

There's never really any doubt at the outcome but the movie - well-acted and handsomely staged - does pose some uncomfortable questions at a time when the blanket defence of free speech is being used to air some pretty repellent world views.

Tim Evans