The creative superiority of Erin Brockovich looms mightily over the flat and schematic Conviction which fails to match Julia Roberts’s performance for wit and intrigue.
Lifting the story from the real events of single mother Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) attempt to clear her brother Kenny’s (Sam Rockwell) name after being wrongly convicted for murder in 1983, Conviction is a disappointing hybrid of cheap Sunday afternoon television fare and run-of-the-mill Hollywood sentimentality. With her brother in prison with seemingly no prospect of redemption, Betty Anne, certain of her brother’s innocence, enrols in a law degree as a last ditch attempt to free her sibling. Initially seeking a legal precedent to help clear Kenny’s name, Betty Anne’s struggle is finally aided by advances in forensic science and DNA samples enabling families and legal teams to reopen cases – so long as the evidence hasn’t been destroyed under legislation which dictates it must after twelve years.
Having already tackled ‘women-done-wrong’ roles in Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby, Hilary Swank returns to familiar and comfortable territory; Betty Anne being the logical progressive step to cement the actress as the most able purveyor of oppressed individuals fighting against the odds, patriarchal society and unforgiving institutions. What differentiates Conviction from Swank’s previous incarnations, however, is Betty Anne’s one-dimensionality, despite some of the incredible obstacles she overcomes. It is left to the film’s colourful assortment of orbiting characters such as Juliette Lewis’s scorned lover, Melissa Leo’s malicious police officer and Sam Rockwell’s abrasive yet loveable Kenny to enliven Conviction, elevating it up above a place in the Lifetime Channel’s schedules.
Conviction’s central problem is contained in the name: the audience never left in any doubt regarding Kenny’s innocence or Betty Anne’s potential to surprise her detractors. Besides Tony Goldwin’s innocuous direction, which leaves an invisible mark on the film, it is this narrative predictability which ultimately lets both the actors and the audience down. Coupled with some crass emotional manipulation and an awkward dramatic rhythm, Conviction is rendered a rather monotonous and lifeless affair for a story with undeniable potential.