Clemency (2019)

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Just the one review from me this week, I’m in the middle of recovering from laser eye surgery! Before I went under the knife (so to speak!), I managed to catch Clemency, a film that will forever be remembered by myself as the last motion picture I ever had to watch with the help of glasses! Would such a momentous occasion be rewarded with a suitably momentous movie?

Well, on the whole, I didn’t go out with a bang, but I didn’t go out with a whimper either. Clemency is an American drama that tells the story of Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), the warden of a prison that incarcerates and executes death row prisoners. With the impending execution of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a quiet, considered inmate who still maintains his innocence, Bernadine is forced to address the conflict between her responsibilities as warden and her feelings and emotions as an ethical human being.

To be honest, Clemency is one of those movies that does exactly what it says on the tin, and provides the kind of experience that you expect from the trailer and the premise, You’re not getting any The Green Mile style fantasy here; you’re not getting a cathartic social justice narrative that wants to inspire, you’re simply getting a quiet and contemplative drama about the nature of the death penalty, and the effects that it can have not only on the condemned, but also on those who are employed to carry it out.

I used the word quiet above, and quiet really is the defining adjective that comes to mind when thinking about Clemency. For a film about something as viscerally divisive as the death penalty, the narrative is an incredibly stark and stripped back one. Pretty much every character on screen is holding back their emotions and true feelings for one reason or another, and it creates a tone of something simmering just under the surface that really holds your attention. This kind of evocative slow burn is something that I enjoy in drama, especially when the performances are good, but be warned that Clemency might not be for you if you like your narratives to chug along at a pace and be frequently explosive.

Ultimately, Clemency’s plot and themes don’t bring anything new to the prison drama/death row genre, but there is definitely enough in here to warrant praise and plaudits. Don’t expect elevated melodrama or something that indulges in the more exploitative tropes of a ‘jail movie’, this is a somewhat stifled and restrained film that often says more in its silence than it does in its noise.

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As warden Bernadine Williams, Alfre Woodard gives a seasoned and powerful performance. On screen for probably 95% of the runtime, you really do live and breath every moment with the character, and by the end of the final act feel like you have been on a journey into her mind, albeit a rather impenetrable one. Woodard has a stoic, middle distance stare type presence that is perfect for the role. You can physically see the emotional separation in her face that Bernadine has to perform on a daily basis, and her controlled and guarded performance is undoubtedly the main highlight of the film.

Equally stoic and guarded is Aldis Hodge as death row inmate Anthony Woods. In what feels like a deliberate parallel to Bernadine, Anthony too is a quiet, contemplative, emotionally torn character, and although the two don’t share as many scenes as you might imagine, the time they spend on screen together is really electric in an unspoken, wordless kind of way.

The film is peppered with a number of quality supporting performances from the likes of Wendell Pierce, Richard Schiff, Danielle Brooks and LaMonica Garrett. The consistently high standard of acting in even the smallest parts is something that really shines through across the plot, something that I think is crucial in ensuring that these slow burn types of narratives remain engaging from start to finish.

Overall, Clemency is a solid death row drama that manages to stay on top of its deliberately slow pace thanks to a number of really strong performances. Alfre Woodard reminds us all that she is a charismatic force to be reckoned with, surrounded by a cast that bring the best out in her and in the restrained but emotive material. Not the most bombastic or memorable drama you will see this year, but definitely worth a watch for fans of the genre.

2 thoughts on “Clemency (2019)

  1. I watched the first half of this last night. I will finish tonight. In its quiet way it does deliver a strong impact.

  2. For me this was a 4.5*. Alfre Woodard gave the best performance of last year, in my opinion. I agree about the simmering emotions; it becomes almost an unbearable element of the plot…so much suppressed grief!

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