“Denial” is a powerful movie on multiple levels. However, at its heart, it is a film about lawyers for lawyers. Based on actual events that took place in the 1990s, it concerns a trial in London where an anti-Semitic Hitler apologist is suing a Jewish-American writer for libel. I strongly suspect that most of you will find it captivating from the opening scene.
The gifted Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt, a university professor who publishes a work denouncing the deniers of the Holocaust. Included in her list is the egocentric historian David Irving, played by Timothy Spall in an unforgettable performance.
Unlike the legal system in the United States, the problem for Lipstadt is that English law requires a person who is sued for libel to establish the truth of her allegations. She knows from the beginning that she needs to be surrounded by a great team of lawyers, and the movie takes you into the heart of litigation seldom played out on the big screen.
Few films have taken the time to explore the nature of the British legal system. Mercifully, the late Leo McKern provided comic relief in the spectacular TV series “Rumpole of the Bailey” (1978-1992) and Charles Laughton did the same thing in Billy Wilder’s memorable “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957). Director Mick Jackson’s “Denial” deserves to share the company of those sterling films.
Weisz is dynamic as an intelligent, aggressive writer who must now learn to act as a client. And that is the moment when actors Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott dominate the film as a solicitor and barrister who know that the purpose of any trial has but one goal, and that is to win.
As he has demonstrated over the years, Wilkinson is a brilliant actor. The relationship between his character, Richard Rampton, and Lipstadt and Scott’s Anthony Julius reminded me of my many years in court representing criminal defendants. For example, what does a lawyer do when his or her client wants to testify and you professionally believe that this will result in disaster? Rampton and Julius had to convince Lipstadt to do the one thing that was alien to her personality, namely to sit quietly in court and keep her mouth shut.
As I watched that moment, I couldn’t help but revisit a murder trial that I had in southern Indiana 20 years ago. My client had a previous conviction overturned, and he was out on bond. A convicted felon who was also angry and argumentative, he insisted that I call a witness that suddenly materialized months before trial to offer testimony that would tremendously aid our defense. However, I strongly suspected that our trial would blow up if I put the man on the stand, and a final decision was not confronted until the state rested.
I argued with my client before we broke for lunch, and I told him to come back before the afternoon session and give me a final opinion. When he returned, he harshly approached me and said through pursed lips while jamming his finger into my chest, “All right, Hammerle, we won’t call him, but you better be right!” Though I grabbed his finger and jerked it away, his crying family finally agreed with my decision.
The jury was out for two hours before they returned with an acquittal, but the time seemed to last for two days. The bottom line is you saw from the actions of Lipstadt’s legal team that good lawyers have to make tough decisions whether or not their clients agree. In doing so, every lawyer knows that if a negative verdict results, your client will always blame you.
Obviously, the heart of this movie dealt with the Holocaust itself, and there are moments where our group visits Auschwitz. As you sit in the theater watching them trace the movements where Jews walked down steps to be locked in a room where they were agonizingly gassed to death, you are left as horrified as if this was your first knowledge of that wretched event.
Ironically, I found one of the most engaging elements of this film to be the use of alcohol by the defense team. It was always present when Rampton and his colleagues were preparing for trial, and I found the same thing to be true in my experience in Indiana over the last 35 years.•
Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis at Pence Hensel LLC as of counsel. When he is not in the courtroom or the office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.