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London Film Festival:
'Conviction' May Be Divisive, But It's A Truly Important Movie

Wednesday 20th October 2010, Sawf News

Conviction is a divisive film. Some critics are predicting Oscar glory; others have labeled it predictable and formulaic.

The latter group may be right, up to a point.

At first glance, Conviction sounds like a generic paperback thriller – the story of a sister who spends 18 years fighting for her brother's release from prison after the police framed him for murder – but that's before you realize that this story has a big twist; this story is actually true. For this reason, Conviction is a truly important movie.

Kenny and Betty-Anne Waters (Sam Rockwell and Hilary Swank) were two of their mother's nine children by seven different fathers and spent time in various foster homes. Coming from such a dysfunctional family, the two siblings spent their childhood sneaking into other people's houses and playing families; pretending to have normal lives. Repeatedly caught by police, they became known to the authorities quite quickly – particularly Kenny, whose aggressive protectiveness over his sister saw him branded a troublemaker.

For Kenny, these early run-ins with the authorities engendered a distrust and resentment towards the police that lasted into his adulthood – and the feeling was mutual. Whenever any crime was committed in the area, the cops promptly showed up on Kenny's doorstep seeking an alibi. May 22nd 1980, the day after Waters' neighbor Katherina Brow was stabbed to death in her home, was no different. He provided an alibi, supported by a witness, and thought that was the end of the matter.

But more than two years later, police officers stormed the funeral of Waters' grandfather, subjecting him to a humiliating arrest in front of his friends and family, the first in a catalogue of morally and ethically unsound decisions taken by the police in their pursuit of Kenny Waters.

At his trial, the prosecution actively suppressed evidence which could prove Kenny's innocence. Bloody fingerprints from the scene went missing in the lead-up to his trial. A witness who claimed Waters had a large cut on his face after the murder went unchallenged, even though police noted on the day after the murder that he had no cuts or bloodstains on his body.

The sole physical evidence apparently tying Waters to the crime was some type O blood, believed to be that of the perpetrator, found in the victim's home - but an expert testified that 48% of the US population had type O blood. However, Waters' reputation as the local bad boy preceded him. In 1983 he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Conviction tells the truly inspiring story of his sister Betty-Anne's 18 year struggle to release him from prison. While those around her insisted that she accept her brother's guilt and get on with her own life, Betty-Anne remained steadfast in her belief that Kenny could not have committed such a terrible crime. When she could no longer afford to retain attorneys to work on Kenny's case, she took the decision to put herself through college and law school, ultimately becoming her brother's lawyer and fighting tirelessly to exonerate him.

Her journey was not without obstacles. As we follow Waters through law school we watch her try and fail to juggle her workload with her home life, floundering at school because of her family commitments, and vice versa. Deserted by her husband and, later, her two sons, she still refuses to give up on her brother. After passing her bar exam she discovers that DNA could now prove her brother's innocence and, with the help of best friend Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), vows not to rest until she's found it.

Conviction tells two stories simultaneously. The first is an uplifting one, a portrayal of the unconditional love between a brother and a sister. The concurrent story is a much darker one; a chilling tale of corruption in authority and the horrifying consequences it can have for people like Kenny Waters. In one scene Betty-Anne explains to Kenny's daughter that if the state of Massachusetts had the death penalty, her father would have been dead long before his conviction was overturned – a sobering thought.

Swank is compelling as Betty-Anne but for once she's not the star of the show. Sam Rockwell is perfectly cast as Kenny, playing the character for laughs as a lovable outlaw but, just occasionally, losing his temper so furiously as to explain how some could have been convinced of Kenny's guilt. Overall, he comes across as slightly unhinged; a portrayal which one imagines may not have put a smile on the real Betty-Anne's face. Minnie Driver gets some great one-liners as the sassy Abra and feels slightly underused, while Juliette Lewis is hilarious as one of Kenny's deranged, chain-smoking former girlfriends.

Conviction has come under fire from some quarters for being too slow-burning and procedural, but director Tony Goldwyn has clearly taken a decision to remain true to the characters. Conviction isn't a fast-paced thriller, it's a true story – and in real life there aren't gun battles and car chases and eureka moments every five minutes. The film is procedural because our protagonist is Betty-Anne, a first time lawyer jumping through the necessary hoops to free her brother. This can be frustrating, of course, but we are merely sharing Betty-Anne's frustration. However eager we are as viewers to see Kenny released, we can never comprehend the frustration that Betty-Anne must have felt at that exact same moment in time, so it's difficult to begrudge Goldwyn for pacing the movie as he has.

Conviction is a film that stays with you long after you leave the cinema. Put simply, the police set Kenny Waters up because they didn't like him. There was no evidence connecting him to the murder because he didn't commit it, but by suppressing evidence which could have cleared him, they were able to rob him of 18 years of his freedom. He never got to watch his daughter growing up and, in one of life's cruel ironies, he got to spend just six months with her after his conviction was overturned before he died in a tragic accident.

In their campaign to pin the murder on Kenny Waters the police omitted vital exculpatory evidence and coerced witnesses. The prosecution's two star witnesses both later recanted their statements and independently accused the same police officer of taking them to a hotel and threatening to charge them as accomplices if they didn't pretend that Waters had confessed to the murder in their presence. By the time this behaviour was uncovered, the statute of limitations had expired and the officer responsible could never be held accountable for their actions. Kenny Waters paid for that police officer's misdeeds with his life, while the officer got off without so much as a $50 fine.

That's what stays with you when you leave the cinema after watching Conviction; the injustice of it all. The frustration of knowing that an innocent man spent almost half of his life in prison for a crime he didn't commit, and the cops who framed him will never face justice for their deceit. You can't help leaving the cinema thinking about what this movie is really telling you; that if they did it to Kenny Waters, they could do it to you – and that thought will keep you awake at night for a lot longer than any fast-paced thriller.

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Charles Thomson - Sky News