Clemency review – Alfre Woodard delivers a tour de force

Chinonye Chukwu's downbeat death row drama is a gripping portrait of a woman losing her composure and sense of purpose

There’s not a single moment in this crisply-shot and dour prison drama that doesn’t work as proof of the immense talents of Alfre Woodard. As Bernadine, a hardened prison warden in an unspecified US state, she brings to life every inch of a woman whose existence has been contaminated – slowly, insidiously – by a morally abhorrent act she refuses to grapple with in any emotional way. Directed by Chinonye Chukwu in what must be considered an exceptional effort for a sophomore feature, Clemency is very consciously a “very serious film.” But it’s also tightly-controlled and gripping, something watched – unknowingly, perhaps, until it’s finally over – with a permanently clenched jaw.

Following a meticulous opening scene that depicts an execution gone wrong in painstaking detail, Bernadine is right away forced to confront the next one – her twelfth overall. This time it’s Anthony Woods (an impressive turn from Aldis Hodge), a convicted cop-killer who hopes to be granted the clemency of the film’s title before he’s put to death. Though it’s easy to pinpoint the film’s moral position, this isn’t a death row drama that wrestles with the ethics of the process as much as it explores the toll it takes on those whose work centres around the act.

Bernadine is somebody who sees life as a set of rules; if she refuses to break the rules, then she cannot be broken. As we hone in on her life both at work and at home (her concerned husband is played by The Wire’s Wendell Pierce), Chukwu is careful not to deal in broad strokes, throwing in smaller moments that hint at a larger, unseen picture. Bernadine frequents bars enough to suggest she might have a drinking problem, though the film never hits too hard on a point that could lapse into cliché. Later, a conversation with the only co-worker she seems to share a connection with flirts with the possibility of romance – or the regret of having had one already, perhaps. Again, Chukwu wisely resists following the thread too far.

Whilst Chukwu’s control of tone is impressive, Clemency is also so intent to suffocate us that it’s hard not to question whether it needed to be quite so muted, especially in its depiction of prison life amongst staff. Even in fields as inherently morbid as those depicted here, surely there would still exist a sense of camaraderie or intimacy between workers – a playfulness, even. And yet there’s a clinical feel to the setting that renders it more filmic than realistic. Later, a script that starts out saying so little begins to say too much. The intimate, character study-like approach occasionally slips from its director’s icy grip and falls into more melodramatic territory. One scene – featuring a small role for the great Danielle Brooks – is particularly overwritten and unnecessary, as are some odd nightmare sequences that feel misappropriated from a film of less elegant design.

There is a nice, sympathetic performance from Richard Schiff, who plays Woods’ disillusioned lawyer and confidant. But really the film belongs to Woodard, able to convey so much with the utterance of a simple line – or saying nothing at all. She also delivers some of the best drunk acting – notoriously difficult – I’ve ever seen, in which words have never been slurred so convincingly. As Clemency reaches its most devastating moment – an extraordinary long take that offers just as much catharsis for us as it does its subject – a sudden possibility seems to present itself: is this what a perfect performance looks like?

This film was screened for the press as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2019.

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