- Nikki Baughan
- 2 October 2019
LFF 2019: Unforgettable death penalty drama featuring mesmerising work from Alfre Woodard
The debate surrounding America's death penalty has raged for decades, with myriad documentarians and filmmakers, including Tim Robbins (Dead Man Walking) and Frank Darabont (The Green Mile), exploring the contentious issue. With Clemency, writer-director Chinonye Chukwu (alaskaLand) adds her voice to the throng, taking a measured approach which nevertheless speaks angry volumes about the abject inhumanity of this penal policy.
At its centre is an astonishing performance from Alfre Woodard as prison warden Bernadine Williams, who oversees death row inmates in a facility housing predominantly African-American men. She is proud of her career, during which she has witnessed countless executions. Yet the toll is beginning to tell in her closed-off demeanour and strained relationship with husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce). When Bernadine encounters mild-mannered Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a man sentenced to death for a murder he insists he did not commit, her faith in the justice system begins to fracture.
Bernadine remains poised and professional, even in the face of increased media interest following a botched execution and Woods' dogged – but also disillusioned – lawyer Marty (Richard Schiff). She is, however, clearly in emotional free-fall. She drinks too much, but never lets her personal demons come to the fore. This is a battle she is determined to fight in private.
Indeed, while performances are strong across the board, Woodard is nothing short of mesmerising. Working from Chukwu's sensitive screenplay, she captures Bernadine's churning inner turmoil, not in hysteria or moral soliloquising, but through her resigned expression when comforting the mother of a prisoner, her halting conversations with Jonathan, the raging insomnia which plagues her each night. Chukwu and cinematographer Eric Branco capture this psychological claustrophobia by staying tight on Bernadine – an extended scene in which the camera refuses to look away as she loses herself to silent tears encapsulates Clemency's subtle power.
Elsewhere, an evocative score by Kathryn Bostic combines with immersive sound design to emphasise the hard-edged noises of the prison: the slams, the screams, the heartbeat monitors which play out a condemned man's final moments. These grow in intensity, helping to paint a damning and unforgettable portrait of a woman caught in the machinations of a system which has no time for individuals on either side of the bars, and coming to realise she is a prisoner herself.
Screening on Wed 2, Fri 4 and Fri 11 Oct as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2019. General release TBC.