Clemency: Film Review


I have been looking forward to seeing the critically acclaimed Clemency since I missed it at last year’s London Film Festival and I am thrilled it has FINALLY been given a UK release date so we can all now see Alfre Woodard‘s staggering performance with our own eyes.

The film follows Bernadine Williams (Woodard), the warden of a prison that carries out the death penalty. Following the movie’s opening scene, she has personally been involved in 12 executions and there is another one on the horizon – convicted cop killer Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), who has always maintained his innocence, has lost his latest appeal. While Bernadine looks calm and professional on the outside, she is an emotional wreck – she can’t sleep, she feels totally alone, she drinks often, and her marriage to Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is falling apart.

I had heard so much hype about Woodard’s performance, with some people saying she was criminally overlooked at this year’s Oscars, and I figured it wouldn’t live up to the expectation – but I was proved completely wrong. I was floored by her performance. Bernadine is very restrained and composed on the outside but every so often you get a glimpse of how badly she’s crumbling on the inside. Woodard should have been nominated for an Oscar even just for the final 10 minutes, which are largely shot in a haunting and gripping one-shot close-up of her face. Good Lord!

She has terrific support too, from Pierce as her husband, who is desperately trying to reconnect with his wife and save his marriage, to Hodge, as the prisoner clinging onto hope of a reprieve, and Richard Schiff as his lawyer Marty, who is done with representing death row inmates and is planning to retire.

The performances are the best thing about this sobering drama, written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, as I found the style of the piece quite frustrating. It’s pretty slow-moving and quiet and some scenes have minimal dialogue when a good conversation would have been far more satisfying. Basically, I wanted more to be said and more to happen. I also felt let down by the ending – I would have loved an extra five-10 minutes to draw everything to a conclusion that actually explains where the characters end up.

Clemency is poignant and thought-provoking and offers a rare insight into the emotional toll the death penalty can have on prison staff carrying out the punishment, as opposed to the perspective of the criminal, which gets portrayed more frequently on film. For that reason, as well as the outstanding performances all round, Clemency is worth a watch.

Available to rent via from Friday 17th July. You will be asked to select a local cinema or film collective to receive a share of the revenue. Also available on Curzon Home Cinema.

Rating: 4/5

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