The Review: If you were making a list of people who could make unsympathetic and unlovable characters still appealing, then Paul Giamatti would surely be near the top of that list. His standout turn in Sideways from a few years back may have helped in that cause; his neurotic and uptight Miles still managed to be captivating. So it’s maybe no surprise that, when looking to put on screen Mordecai Richler’s novel about a man and his many marriages, that the makers turned to Giamatti. Barney Panofsky is a man who distrusts and despises the world around him, and generally goes out of his way to tell friends and colleagues what he thinks of them, in no uncertain terms; yet he’s managed to snare (or be snared by) three wives along the way. Having Paul Giamatti in the role makes that prospect instantly more believable.
The three wives in question, who we meet over the course of the film’s extended narrative, are Rachelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike. Barney is drawn to each one for different reasons, and in that the narrative almost becomes a compare and contrast process, as we see the different reasons that people make a life commitment and their effect on Barney each time. Lefevre has the slightest of the three roles in the production, and Pike the meatiest, but each has a sizeable impact on Barney’s character and help to paint the picture of how he becomes the man he is at the end. Pike’s is undoubtedly the strongest performance of the three, although the movie has to work hard in each case to make the set-ups believable, mainly thanks to Barney’s personality.
Apart from Barney and his wives, the supporting cast is packed with familiar names and faces, Dustin Hoffman being the most prominent. When the narrative isn’t entirely focussed on the three wives’ tales, there’s a preoccupation with family and the legacy that others have had on Barney and in turn his effect on them. The film is at least enjoyable for all of these parts of its running time, but generally the scenes involving a wife are the most compelling. There’s a real depth of feeling and there are strong themes of behaviour, love and loyalty, each running through each tale and inviting the viewer to compare and contrast, but taken on their own these strands are as good a romantic comedy drama as you’ll have seen in many a year.
Which is why it’s all the more disappointing that, at regular intervals, one of the smaller subplots actually ends up overshadowing the whole film. The structure of the book plays on the unreliable narrator idea, but the film has a more conventionally flashback structure and so a potential murder mystery is used to cause Barney to review his life from the point of view his older self. But the whole whodunnit is so completely at odds both tonally and structurally with everything else and so unbelievable in its execution that it unbalances everything, and the fact that the resolution feels like it’s been casually lifted from the opening of a Paul Thomas Anderson film means the whole strand is distracting from beginning to end. A shame, as the rest of the film is so likeable and Giamatti deserves to be centre stage in a hit, but sadly this will only be remembered as a partial success.
Why see it at the cinema: For me, Rosamund Pike almost naked on a bed justified the price of admission, but I’m sadly turning into my own version of a dirty old man with the passing of time. Enough of that. For regular audiences, Giamatti is great, and if you can overlook the murder subplot there’s enough laughs and tears here to thoroughly enjoy the collective experience.
The Score: 7/10
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