Tony Goldwyn’s Conviction (2009) treads the well worn path of many of its BFI London Film Festival contemporaries this year – Julian Schnabel’s Miral (2010) and Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours (2010) to name but two – in prefacing their story with the phrase “Based on a true story/real events”. Apparently nothing is quite as compelling as reality and Goldwyn is quick to realise this in his choice for his first feature.
Conviction tells the story of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), a young women who, following the imprisonment of her brother Kenneth (Sam Rockwell) for the vicious and brutal murder of a local woman, embarks on an impassioned crusade to win his freedom, stalwart in her belief of his innocence. This will turn out to be no small task and as the initial court appeal fails, she takes it on herself to enrol in college to study for a law degree, with the view to eventually becoming her brother’s attorney.
As you’ve probably already gleaned from that brief synopsis, this is the type of role that Hilary Swank is born to – and has already carved a celebrated career from. Drawing casually from the plucky, downtrodden, against-all-odds-fit that won her for an Academy Award as Maggie Fitzgerald in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004), Swank is barely breaks into a sweat, realising a role she could have probably cold read in one take and still had the audience reaching for the hankies by the credits.
Rockwell, on the other hand, is in a less familiar territory following a slew of rather disparate roles over the past decade that have taken him from blockbuster to horror to sci-fi and everywhere else in between. Just as with almost all those aforementioned roles, Rockwell bubbles with aplomb as he brings to life the lovable and roguish Kenny Waters.
With proven talent like Swank and Rockwell on board Goldwyn is pretty much guaranteed a half-decent finished product. Support from Minnie Driver and Clea DuVall is also excellent, though the most interesting and quirky performance comes from actress-turned-punk rocker Juliette Lewis in a brief, yet entertaining, cameo as Kenny’s former girlfriend, Roseanna Perry.
Yes, the whole thing is a touch on the sentimental side and even, dare I say, melodramatic. Despite Rockwell’s skill, Kenny is just a little too much the lovable, happy-go-lucky, everyman, somewhat conspicuously written to appeal to audience sympathies. The music too can feel manipulative in places as the plinky-plonky piano parts pluck with relish at the heart strings giving the whole experience a slightly contrived, Oscar-nominee worthiness.
Having said that, I didn’t honestly come away with the impression that Conviction was cynically playing its audience for a calculated emotional response; there’s nothing here that wouldn’t be expected from this sort of sweeping, human story.
Ultimately, Conviction feels more heavy-handed in places than it does manipulative, which is forgivable: better to have tried hard with the best intentions and over-stepped your mark than to have gone out of your way exploit real-life events for the purpose of stroking your own ego.
If you can silence the cynic within yourself and allow those few overly sentimental transgressions to slide, then there’s no reason to not enjoy Conviction. It would also come with the recommendation that you don’t know how it all turns out – whether or not Kenny is, in fact, innocent – but as the vast majority of reviews for the film give this away, I’m probably wasting my breath.