It happens every year at the London Film Festival. Tucked away in the programme schedule is at least one gem that you’d expect to be in the spotlight yet finds itself consigned to the latter half of the catalogue. This year the programmers have excelled themselves. There’s Scott Z Burns’ The Report, with Adam Driver on potentially award winning form. And there’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, Clemency, director Chinonye Chukwu’s sophomore feature, which sees her take on a weighty subject, one that dominates the life of the film’s central character.
Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) is a prison warden, cool, calm and the epitome of professionalism to the outside world. But look into those eyes and all the evidence is there of the told her job has taken over years of dedication. The prison is in a state where the death penalty is both legal and exercised and she’s presided over a number of executions. The opening scenes concentrate on one that goes horrifyingly wrong, so the planning for the next one is even more meticulous than usual. This time the prisoner has been convicted of killing a cop and, despite his consistent denials and a being surrounded by a vociferous campaign to have the verdict overturned, the date has been set. At the same time, the pressures of the job and its profound effects, particularly on her marriage, cause Bernadine to have doubts about what she does.
While the film’s view of the death penalty is transparent, Chukwu approaches it through the eyes of those it affects, directly and indirectly – the prison staff, the families, the condemned man, partners, children ….. all at least affected, often shattered. Finding staff to officiate at the execution isn’t easy: once is more than enough for one of the most reliable members of staff, Logan (LaMonica Garrett), who is involved in the first one but can’t face another. There’s an acute moment between him and Bernadine which echoes a scene from the start of the film: in just a few seconds it says everything about the impact on him.
Several stories are skilfully woven into the narrative. Primarily, there’s the build-up to Anthony Woods’ (Aldis Hodge) execution, but there’s also his own story. Having to face the prospect of his own death, he clings to every straw of hope he can find, even though he’s warned by his experienced lawyer Marty (Richard Schiff) of the inherent dangers. In parallel, it’s also the story of people who have reached the end of their career roads: Marty is retiring, Bernadine’s caring but sometimes exasperated husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is determined to give up teaching so the two of them enjoy a less stressful life, although Bernadine herself has yet to confront that she cannot do this job any more, but that moment is never far away. They are all sliding towards an inevitable conclusion, one over which they have little or no control.
The acting is exemplary, especially from Woodard, who is outstanding. Almost but not quite dead behind the eyes, she struggles desperately to hold on to her marriage, and her life, in the face of what isn’t a job to her, but a profession. But this isn’t a case of one performance rising above everything else in a film. Pierce and Hodge both give excellent supporting performances and, in truth, there isn’t anybody in the cast who strikes a false note. Make no mistake – this is not an easy watch. The quiet, low-key tone underlines the impact of its messages and an almost unbearable feeling of distress. Which means that when emotion does overflow on screen, it’s shattering. And you’ll be lost for words afterwards.
Drama | Cert: tbc |BFI London Film Festival | 2, 4 and 11 October 2019 | Dir. Chinonye Chukwu | Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Aldis Hodge, LaMonica Garrett, Wendell Pierce.