Writer and Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Prison dramas are almost always written from the perspective of the inmates, particularly those awaiting execution on death row, so Chinonye Chukwu’s film Clemency showing as part of the London Film Festival is unusual, exploring the long-term effects of America’s system of capital punishment on a female prison warden. This should be one of the most intense and exciting films in the programme yet its almost stationary narrative drive is unclear and strangely tedious.
Bernadine Williams has overseen many state-sponsored executions in her capacity as warden, but a botched death shakes the confidence of her whole team. With a celebrity inmate next to face lethal injection, the weeks leading to Anthony Woods’ planned execution are filled with bad dreams, marital discord and pleas for humanity from protestors, lawyers and family members. With the possibility that the Governor could grant clemency until the last second, Bernadine can only wait to see if she or Anthony will be reprieved.
The underlying premise of Clemency is a good one and to have a senior female figure as the prison warden is an interesting role for any actor. Yet, Chinonye Chukwu is too easily sidetracked by dull domestic issues affecting Bernadine outside the prison which add very little psychological insight other than suggesting her life is complicated. And we spend far too much time watching her have the same fight with her husband about retirement as he moves out and back in again for almost no reason.
And this is a recurring issue in Clemency, information is repeated over and over in an attempt to wring every last ounce of emotion from us, but it creates the opposite effect, actually lessening the impact of their struggles. Even Anthony’s story as he discovers a son he never knew about, discusses the hopelessness of appeals with his lawyer and finds reasons for living are rehashed throughout the film until the viewer starts to wonder when the execution might save us all from this narrative roundabout.
Alfre Woodard is great as Bernadine, a tough professional who delivers her difficult duties with a cool formality, even when harried by the failed execution that opens the film. As the story unfolds we see the commitment to her job and the satisfaction she takes in it clash with her husband’s decisions for her which she resists, while underneath Woodard gives us the more brittle woman who needs to drink her problems away with colleagues rather than go home. It’s just a shame that it makes so little sense that of all inmates Anthony would affect her when the film cannot suggest why his case is so special.
Aldis Hodge has a pretty tough job as Anthony to convey the conflicting emotions that a man who believes he is innocent yet facing a brutal death would experience, which he does well, and he has many many emotional breakdowns as the execution draws near. Richard Schiff has a small but interesting role as Anthony’s disillusioned lawyer unable to fight the system any longer and Wendell Pierce pops up as the beleaguered husband whose role has nothing to add. Woodard does have an interesting frisson with Richard Gunn’s Deputy Warden but it never goes anywhere.
And that’s the problem with Clemency, it has a lot of strands and several possible routes that it never seems to take, so the overall effect is rather wearying. Instead, it fills its near two-hour run time with surprisingly little content and no clear message about the people whose job it is to pull the trigger.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October