Director Tony Goldwyn
Screenwriter Pamyler Gray
Cast Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver
Erin Brockovich, eat your heart out. We have another tough-as-nails, hard-working single mum who is going to court to fight an unfair, losing war. This time, it’s Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), who is determined to put herself through both college and law school to argue for, and hopefully free, her wrongly-convicted brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell). This is sibling love at its most powerful. Ms. Brockovich was up against a massive, evil corporation with Ms. Waters on the other hand facing the government and its judicial system. Take your pick on which is more challenging.
Kenny is not a nice guy. He is hot-tempered, foul-mouthed and rude, which is why it’s hard to suspect something shady when he is pinned for murder and armed robbery. All the evidence is against him, and with no plausible alibi, he is sent straight to jail. Rockwell plays this character to perfect precision. He may be violent when under the influence of alcohol, but he can also be a genuinely nice guy as quite clearly shown in the touching scenes he shares with Betty Anne and Rockwell’s beautifully nuanced performance is undeniably excellent.
Swank seems to have a knack for playing real-life characters and there is a reason why she keeps getting these difficult parts: her dramatic performance truly draws the audience in. Looking more seasoned and modest than Julia Roberts ever did in Brockovich, Swank, at the heart of the story, instantly wins the audience over to her side, and her magnetic performance makes us cry whenever she does.
Despite the growing tension in her marriage and the difficulty she faces whilst balancing law books, a part-time job and raising her two children, it’s her determination that gets her through. In this seemingly impossible war, Waters does have some help from a fellow classmate, “the other old lady”, as Abra (Minnie Driver) so charmingly puts it. It’s unclear why Abra is so willing to help – she is even willing to get up at five in the morning for our heroine – but Driver provides some excellent, comic relief that we don’t mind whenever she tags along by Betty Anne’s side, supporting her like all loyal gal-pals should. Not much is told about Abra, apart from the fact that she has a heart of gold and a cracking sense of humour.
Many crucial details are rushed past for the sake of pushing on with the core plot. Betty Anne’s supposed struggle at law school is only very briefly addressed with everything becoming so much clearer to our heroine in a sudden jump of several years in time. It reportedly took the real-life Betty Anne 18 years to crack the system. The fact that it only takes Swank two hours is inevitable, but because the film moves so frantically, both backwards and forwards, some of its focus is lost. Director Tony Goldwyn tends to use flashbacks whenever he is trying to make more of an emotional/dramatic impact on the screen. The problem is, he uses one too many of those, and places them in awkward moments. Yes, we understand the fact that Kenny and Betty Anne depended on one another ever since they were young. The child actors (Tobias Kendall and Bailee Madison) portray this to impressive standards, but do we really need several individual episodes that mirror the various circumstances of the adult siblings?
“Conviction” is your typical, conventionally-told autobiography that could have worked just as well as a TV movie. But how does it manage to be so memorable? And how does this cheesy story pack in such a strong emotional punch? The flawless performances. Aside from Swank, Rockwell and Driver, the two actresses who have very brief moments to shine make the most out of their key roles. Juliette Lewis, playing a low-life, white trash with the scariest set of teeth is an unforgettable scene-stealer. Melissa Leo’s character, the vengeful cop who has it out for Kenny, remains shockingly one-dimensional throughout, but Leo manages to bring a touch of humanity out of the otherwise unrealistically soulless character.
Not as courtroom heavy as “Erin Brockovich” but with as much emotion and a set of actors who have been perfectly cast, “Conviction” feels manipulative at times, but as the film crescendos to the grand finale, you can’t help but being swept up by the sustained drama, no matter how predictable.