Conviction (15)

Directed by Tony Goldwyn
Written by Pamela Gray
On general release (not FACT) from 14th January 2011

Reviewed by Adam Ford

I'm not spoiling too much by saying the 'Conviction' of the title stands for the wrongful guilty verdicts against Kenny Waters (who stood trial for the real life 1980 murder of Katharina Brow). But it also describes the determination of Betty Anne Waters, who qualified as a lawyer in an ultimately successful attempt to free her brother. This film is their story.

In flashbacks, Betty Anne and Kenny are shown growing up side by side in a small trailer park-filled Massachusetts town. Their life was one of getting into trouble, simply because it was a low cost way of having some fun. In the late seventies and early eighties, Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) is a bar worker whilst Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is just about getting by in low paid blue collar work, and still having scrapes with the local police.

When Kenny is accused of the brutal murder, he and Betty Anne are convinced he'll get off. But when two of his lovers turn testimony against him, a despairing Kenny is sentenced to life without parole, there being no death penalty in the state. In a bid to save Kenny from suicide or decades inside, Betty Anne begins her marathon bid to qualify as a lawyer, and uncover the evidence that would open this prison gates. It was a struggle that would take nearly two decades, costing Betty Anne her marriage and sometimes stunting her relationship with her kids.

Unlike most cinematic portrayals of working class life America (which are precious few and far between anyhow), Tony Goldwyn's version neither demonises nor romanticises - it simply is as it is. This feeds into the believability of Kenny's character in particular, which is superbly brought to life by Sam Rockwell. Similarly, Hilary Swank shows a tigerish tenacity that is so rare in female roles, but which she really seems to relish, no doubt at least in part due to her own difficult upbringing. Minnie Driver brings such much needed humour to her scenes as Betty Anne's colleague and confidant. Oscar nominations should be forthcoming.

On the down side, much of the film bears a leaden weight, which is mostly caused by Goldwyn and writer Pamela Gray's laser-like focus on the emotional trauma endured by the two siblings, to the exclusion of so much else. For instance, the police conspiracy and frameup is almost treated incidentally, whereas it would have made for a much more engaging story element, if it had been treated right. One woman's extraordinary persistence is very admirable, but the corruption inherent in the 'justice system' is of much wider interest. Still, Conviction shows a respectful empathy with the struggles of the underprivileged, and that is a start.

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