Films based on real events must tread a fine line between storytelling and verisimilitude, and for about 15 minutes or so Tony Goldwyn's Conviction looks as if it might just do a decent job of it.
ilary Swank stars as Betty Anne Waters, an unemployed young Massachusetts mother who devoted 16 years of her life to overturning her brother's conviction for a brutal murder she was convinced he hadn't committed. In the film's opening minutes, images of a blood-soaked crime scene are juxtaposed with scenes from Betty Anne's troubled childhood.
She and her older brother Kenny were neglected and mistreated by their inadequate mother, and ran wild around their small town, stealing sweets and breaking into neighbours' homes. When they grow up, Betty Anne marries and settles down, but Kenny (Sam Rockwell) stays angry, and is constantly getting into trouble with the law. Betty Anne is devastated when Kenny is arrested, tried and convicted for the murder of a local German woman, thanks mainly to the testimonies of an old girlfriend and his ex-wife.
She's convinced he didn't do it, and launches several unsuccessful appeals on his behalf. When the lawyers give up, Betty Anne sets out to qualify as a lawyer herself, and becomes so obsessed by freeing her brother that she jeopardises her marriage and her relationship with her own children.
There's a certain artfulness to the manner in which all of this is established, but once the scene is set things become all too predictable. In fact, for the most part Conviction feels like a John Grisham film with all the fun bits taken out: it's nothing like as daft as a Grisham movie, but not half as camply engaging either.
Hilary Swank has played put-upon heroines so often that even she looks bored by it, and there's a curious flatness to her performance here. Sam Rockwell is always very watchable, and his Kenny Waters is a suitably volatile and unpredictable character. But once he's incarcerated his involvement necessarily diminishes, and the film misses him.
A decent supporting cast includes Melissa Leo, who plays the baddie, Peter Gallagher, who's a campaigning lawyer, and Minnie Driver, who appears doomed to spend the rest of her career playing best friends. But the film's most engaging moments come courtesy of Juliette Lewis, who steals all her scenes as Kenny's magnificently flaky and not especially bright ex-girlfriend.
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