Conviction is yet another film based on ‘an inspirational true story’ because, I’m assuming, Hollywood has now run out of made-up stories.
Conviction is yet another film based on ‘an inspirational true story’ because, I’m assuming, Hollywood has now run out of made-up stories. (There isn’t a limitless supply, you know; it’s not as if you can just magic them out of the air.) This story is a remarkable story but, alas, this film is not a remarkable film. It is competently executed, and it isn’t total torture to sit through, but it suffers from what I would call ‘chronic plod’. Plod, plod, plod, plod, plod, it goes, and while I have nothing against plodding per se — as something of a plodder myself, I would be a fool to come out wholly against it — it does get rather tiring. Plodding is tiring. Indeed, after a full day of plodding, I can be thoroughly worn out. Non-plodders may not even realise how tiring it is.
So, what is this true and inspirational story that plods? I will tell you. Billed as a tale about ‘a sister’s unwavering devotion to her brother’, it’s the story of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), a working-class mom and high-school dropout whose older brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is given a life sentence for a murder he claims he didn’t commit. Betty Anne believes in his innocence and, unable to afford legal fees, puts herself back into school, then through college and law school in order to qualify as an attorney, assemble new evidence and clear his name. It took her 18 years, but she did it. Wow. Would you do such a thing for your older brother? Would you? I don’t know if I’d do it for mine. When we were growing up, he used to write ‘Arsenal’ or ‘Up The Gunners’ on my forehead in laundry pen while I was asleep. This makes me waver. (Also, he once pee-d on my sister in the bath, but as she was bossy, I rather applauded this. ‘Keep up. Why do you always have to plod?’ she would always ask bossily on our way to school.)
Conviction must have looked good on paper because it is good on paper. It may even be great on paper, but it stays great only on paper. It is not great on screen. Directed by Tony Goldwyn with a script by Pamela Gray, it doesn’t bring anything to the party beyond the story itself, which is what keeps it going in as far as it does keep going. It’s the pedestrian telling of it that’s the problem.
Where to begin? OK. Betty Anne and Kenny had a hard childhood in Ayer, Massachusetts and were, I suppose, ‘white trash’. They lived in a trailer park. Their father was absent. Their mother neglected them grossly. They were shuffled between foster homes, but retained a particular bond. Their childhood is shown in flashbacks, but not cleverly. These flashbacks are cloying, obvious, repetitive and always serve the same purpose of showing Betty’s and Kenny’s ‘special closeness’. We see them breaking into houses to steal sweets. We see them clinging to each other when faced with separation. And so on, until you want to scream, ‘OK, I get this “special closeness”! Enough with the “special closeness”, already! I’m being plodded to death here!’ In fact, the film would have been improved if many of these scenes had been simply excised.
As an adult, Kenny is no angel; he drinks and has a mean streak and is known to the police. So when a waitress is brutally murdered in 1980, he is pulled in for questioning, and if he’d been obliging it might have been fine, but he makes the mistake of insulting a female cop. (Big mistake, Kenny. Big mistake.) Once he has been convicted, Betty Anne dedicates her life to his cause, but the toll it takes on her — emotionally and practically — never makes that leap from paper to screen. The missed fishing trip she promised her two young sons. Studying long into the night. These seem like the kind of events you would have to have in a film like this. They never feel as if they actually happened. Consequently, Swank’s and Rockwell’s performances never feel that true either. They strain to do their best, God bless them, but when storytelling is as workaday as this, how are you meant to fight back?
Listen, I love a triumph-over-adversity movie and, in particular, I love a triumph-over-adversity movie in which justice is done, but Conviction is just neither here nor there. At best, you probably won’t mind sitting through it too much, but that’s about it. It’s a plodder. Plod, plod, plod, plod. There is a lot to be said for plodding — you can hold people up in the street, for example, which is always satisfying — but it does get tiring. I plodded through his and am now very tired indeed.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 15, 2011Tags: Arts review, Conviction, Film