An unexpected air of nostalgia permeates the opening minutes of "God on Trial," which premieres on "Masterpiece Contemporary" at 9 p.m. Sunday. Not, of course, for its subject -- a legendary court held at Auschwitz to determine if the Holocaust proved that God had broken his covenant with Israel -- but for its structure.
Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce ("Welcome to Sarajevo," "Hilary and Jackie") for the BBC, "God on Trial" feels like an old-fashioned play adapted for television, the sort you used to see quite often -- Hal Holbrook in "Our Town" or Lee J. Cobb in "Death of a Salesman." By the subject's very nature, "God on Trial" is powerfully intellectual, heavy on dialogue, light on action and unfolds almost exclusively in a small, grim barracks where a newly arrived group of prisoners demands that an equal number of the older ones be chosen for extermination.
The film opens, however, in modern times, as a tour group moves through Auschwitz. This allows the story to be introduced, but more important, it instantly grounds the modern viewer in the particular horror of the place. "God on Trial" focuses on the emotional and philosophical rather than the physical brutality of the death camp, but even a glimpse of the eerie, haunting museum it has become provides the necessary sensual outrage.
It does take a while for the narrative to actually get going. Many characters are introduced, including the pious Kuhn (Jack Shepherd) and his modern son Mordechai (Rupert Graves); Baumgarten (Stellan Skarsgard), the former law professor; and Idek (Blake Ritson), his most brilliant student; Schmidt (Stephen Dillane), a rabbi; and Moche (Dominic Cooper), the angry young cynic. Then the idea of a trial must be agreed upon, so the setup is workmanlike, with characters filed into roles that are, by necessity, easy to keep straight.
Then the men start talking. With the hindsight of 60-plus years, many of us have come to conclusions about the whereabouts of God during the Holocaust. But, as with any good psychological drama, when a conclusion seems indisputable, someone or something turns it on its head. By the time Lieble (the wonderful Eddie Marsan) makes his devastating argument against free will, there is no turning back. God is railed against and worshiped anew until a rabbi, played by Antony Sher, breaks his silence with a shocking ferocity and brings the whole thing crashing down into heartbreak.
As perhaps you noticed, the cast is packed with more fabulous British actors than a Harry Potter movie, many of them Masterpiece regulars and some instantly familiar to American film audiences -- Cooper for "The History Boys," Skarsgard in "Mamma Mia!" and as Bootstrap Bill in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, Marsan from "Vera Drake."
That they are wonderful, riveting and at times difficult to watch is no surprise, and if their utter Britishness -- no attempts at other European accents here -- is a bit jarring at first, it is soon forgotten. For although the various arguments made during "God on Trial" never deviate from the specific concerns of the Chosen People, larger questions crowd the drama's edges like the silent, rapt men who follow the trial from their bunks.
The nature and existence of God, the nature and necessity of faith, the role humans occupy in the universe and, most important, how to reconcile the idea of a loving deity with the ongoing tragedy of war and genocide.
They are big topics addressed with a striking lack of sentimentality, quite a feat considering the setting. You will weep, but you will also think. And although the weeping will stop fairly soon after the credits role, with any luck, the thinking will not.
Masterpiece Contemporary: 'God on Trial'
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)