The Review: True stories have always been a staple of cinema, and when it comes to recognition, either from audiences or their peers, then it’s sometimes the sheer magnitude of the events that can determine how much attention you should give. So try this one for size: guy gets arrested, tried and imprisoned for murder but proclaims his innocence. OK, you’re thinking, so far so typical, but then how about this: sister of imprisoned murderer believes his innocence but can’t find a way to convince anyone, and their poor background means they can’t afford fancy lawyers. So she decides to become a fancy lawyer herself, attempting to put herself through a degree, law school and then to attempt to overturn the conviction.
If it sounds like a TV movie of the week, then the material might well be a staple of that genre, but the acting talent here raises things up a level or two. Sam Rockwell is one of the most versatile actors of his generation, so manages to inhabit Kenny Waters successfully to the extent where he fully engages your sympathies, but that you still believe he might have been capable of the crime in question. Taking the other main role of his sister, and carrying the film for long stretches, is Hilary “I’ve got two Oscars me” Swank, portraying a naivety at first, then a grim determination to see her quest through, and at the same time rid herself of the giant Eighties hair she’s portrayed with at the start of the film.
This is one of the side effects of the passage of time the film portrays; not only through a large chunk of adulthood, but the film also has a choppy narrative which allows it to cast back to the childhood of Kenny and Betty Anne, putting valuable context around their later situations and strengthening the bond between them, so we can understand exactly why Betty Anne gave up such a large part of her life on this quest. There’s a few famous faces along the way, including Minne Driver as Betty Anne’s best friend at law school and Juliette Lewis as a key witness at the original trial; Melissa Leo has also picked up a Golden Globe this year for her efforts in The Fighter, but she may be the only one from this cast to trouble the engravers at awards time and her role here is tiny.
The reason for that is not the strength of the acting, which is at least good across the board, or the story itself which is compelling, but the direction, from Tony Goldwyn. You might remember him from such films as Disney’s Tarzan (he was Tarzan) or Ghost (he was the creepy bad guy), but you might not remember him from his other directorial efforts, which have been predominantly TV shows, and this TV background does show through, unfortunately. The story, despite its epic sweep through the characters’ lives, does occasionally get bogged down; at the point when one crucial piece of evidence is missing, the characters spend so long looking I was tempted to offer to help myself. The movie also leaves out one crucial detail about the lives of the characters after the events of the movie that could have put an entirely different, and possibly more interesting, spin on the outcome. That said, if true stories with good acting are your thing, then I’m convinced you’ll get something from Conviction.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s the performances more than the visuals that will draw you in on this occasion, although there is the occasional well-framed image that deserves a big screen outing.
The Score: 7/10