How do you make a film with the Holocaust at its heart without hammering the viewer with all that weight and solemnity? Get David Hare to write the screenplay. The makers of this splendid film are also helped along by the fact that this is really an old-fashioned courtroom saga, a dramatisation of the real life legal battle between David Irving (the infamous Hitler apologist) and respected historian Deborah E. Lipstadt, who ripped Irving a new one and labeled him a ‘denier’ in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust. Irving wanted a public debate but Debs wasn’t a fan of providing the oxygen. Desperate for a duel, Irving sued her for libel.
Irving was an early adopter of fake news, an historical troll and intellectual bully. He’s played here by the old master Timothy Spall who pulls out yet another mesmerising performance as he channels the self-styled historian into something almost human and slightly comical, though he doesn’t really get to stretch his legs. He shares, and then loses, the limelight to the wonderful Tom Wilkinson, who plays the superhero of the piece, a wine-sozzled, ciggie-smoking, and sandwich-scoffing barrister of the Rumpole of the Bailey old school. It’s a plum role and Wilkinson guzzles it like Beaujolais.
Rachel Weisz finds the prickly heart of Lipstadt, replete with a Queens accent, even if she’s effectively silenced as the defence team pursues a tactic that puts Irving on trial and forbids Lipstadt or any Auschwitz survivors from testifying. Lipstadt wants to attack the case all guns blazing, she wants American balls-out bluster, but the reserved Brits convince her otherwise. That Brit/Yank divide is mined amusingly throughout, with Lipstadt telling a stateside colleague that the judge (that master of the quivering upper lip, Alex Jennings) looked “like something straight out of Masterpiece Theatre”.