Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

After last year’s Amelia failed to take off, double Academy Award winner Hilary Swank returns with another portrayal of working-class grit and determination. Exec producing as well as taking the lead in this "inspirational true story", Conviction sees her heavily baiting that Oscar hook once more.

Swank plays Betty Waters, an unemployed school dropout from a broken home. The only constant in her childhood, despite separation and foster homes, was the mischievous fun and steadfast affection she shared with her brother Kenny. In 1983, the grown-up Kenny (Sam Rockwell), a roguish crowd-pleaser with a mercurial temperament, was arrested and tried for a brutal murder. When he was sentenced to life without parole, more on testimony than hard evidence, Betty swore to stand by him, convinced of his innocence.

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Never able to afford expensive lawyers, Betty mounted a defense the only way she could. She returned to school, won a diploma, then gained a college degree and got accepted to law school. She eventually passed the bar exam in two states so she could represent Kenny herself. After methodically reviewing the crime and the prosecution’s case, she finally proved Kenny’s innocence with new DNA evidence, some 18 years after his conviction.

The Hollywood A-list tackles this true story of a campaigning young mother with no formal education navigating the legal system. Her marriage falters and her children fall into second place as, against the odds, she rights the wrongs of the innocent. It’s enough for inevitable comparisons to Erin Brockovich, which, unfortunately, leave Conviction a little wanting.

At its heart is the incredible bond of sibling love between Betty and Kenny. Forged from survival as youngsters, seen through stinging slices of flashback, then steeled with allegiance in adulthood, it is genuinely moving. Swank and Rockwell conjure a sister and brother's elemental familiarity with an incredible warmth that binds the film together more than its affirming conclusion.

Rockwell excels. His early scenes as a joker with a jagged edge play to his recognised abilities, but it is Kenny's wavering resilience and degradation of spirit when inside that reveals Rockwell's potency as a character actor. Swank, hardly ever off screen, matches him most of the way. She has no grandstanding moments, but emotes with stable constancy, perhaps the trait that most personifies Betty's drawn out struggle. Rockwell and Swank may both get Oscar nods, but his would be more deserving.

Melissa Leo and Loren Dean provide solid support with simply defined characters, while Minnie Driver delivers a standout, relaxed and unshowy turn as Betty's fellow student and friend. Clea Du Vall and Juliette Lewis take small, pivotal roles as Kenny's sometime partners. Lewis, in particular, throws herself into her snaggletoothed, dissolute creation. Some may see a full-bloodied eccentric act, but to my mind its imbalanced excessiveness near scuttles the film and flags up its largest misgivings.

While Lewis contends with the only occasionally rounded dialogue warranted for the supporting cast, her character illustrates the film's attitude to the working class rank and file that Betty leaves behind. If Betty and Kenny's touching relationship is Conviction's heart, its soul is much less compelling. There’s a latent, dismissive disdain for the American ‘white trash’ portrayed, almost as though they have brought the injustice upon themselves. If there's a point being made about how the authorities and the educated treat such a social strata, it is far from underlined and there is no need to betray them with all the grace of orcs.

The story takes some significant creative license with the final legal wrangles and never seems to really pronounce the atrocity of injustice that Kenny endured in real life. It should be far more incensing than it’s actually portrayed. The epilogue then fails to mention the heartbreaking reality that Kenny died six months after being freed, taking a shortcut home only to fall from a wall and fracture his skull. To know this truly underlines the tragedy of first being robbed of over 18 years of life. The fact that Conviction decides to not acknowledge this exposes rather too blatantly the degree to which it selects real life events for its format. All such films do, of course, yet the cracks shouldn’t be so visible.

We shouldn’t feel so obviously manipulated and steered away from everything else towards the leads’ performances. Betty’s story, and Kenny’s, are inspirational, but to package them so tidily for Oscar, while ignoring the realities of context, seems only to undermine their nobility rather than champion it.

Reviewed on: 19 Oct 2010
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Based on a true story, this drama tells of a sister's struggle to prove her brother's innocence.
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Director: Tony Goldwyn

Writer: Pamela Gray

Starring: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Peter Gallagher, Ari Graynor, Loren Dean, Clea Duvall, Juliette Lewis

Year: 2010

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: US


London 2010

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