By Ray Bennett
TORONTO – Tony Goldwyn’s “Conviction” is a soundly constructed tale of an individual fighting against a travesty of justice with Hilary Swank as a high school dropout who devotes her life to becoming a lawyer in order to prove that her jailed brother is innocent of murder.
With a fine cast including Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver and Melissa Leo, the film is in the tradition of fighting-the-system stories drawn from real life such as “Erin Brokovich,” and its powerful emotional appeal should draw a substantial grownup audience.
Swank and Rockwell play Betty Ann and Kenny Waters, siblings in rural Massachusetts in the 1980s who in flashbacks are seen to have come to depend upon only each other thanks to an absent father, a careless, self-absorbed mother and a string of foster homes.
They both marry and have children but Kenny is a rowdy roughneck whose hijinks often put him on the wrong side of the law. When a woman is brutally murdered, he’s one of the usual suspects but is soon cleared and sent home.
Two years later, new evidence surfaces in the form of testimony from two women who claim they heard Kenny confess to the murder. Pushy small-town cop Nancy Taylor (Leo) immediately arrests him and he is tried and convicted.
Betty Ann refuses to believe her brother is possible of murder and she sets out to prove it. Over almost two decades, she first gets a high-school diploma, then a degree and finally tackles law school.
She loses her husband but she makes an important friend in fellow law student Abra (Driver), who encourages her ambition and helps with the investigation. When DNA forensic techniques are discovered, it becomes a matter of finding all the blood work from the first trial to force an acquital, and so Betty Ann continues her quest.
Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray have a fine grasp of classic storytelling and while the pace never slackens, they always find time for the small but important touches that add to a film’s depth.
Swank and Rockwell are very effective as siblings locked at the hip and their scenes together smack of a real shared history. Driver adds some important pepper to the proceedings and Juliette Lewis makes a vital impression in two scenes as a bedraggled, not very bright witness.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures;Production: Andrew Sugerman, Longfellow Pictures; Cast: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Peter Gallagher; Director, Producer: Tony Goldwyn; Screenwriter: Pamela Gray; Producers: Andrew S. Karsch, Andrew Sugarman; Director of Photography: Adriano Goldman; Production designer: Mark Ricker; Music: Paul Cantelon; Costume designer: Wendy Chuck; Editor: Jay Cassidy.
This review appears in The Hollywood Reporter