Film recommendation: Clemency

A brilliant performance from Alfre Woodard powers this taut, vital, moral drama about the toll on all involved of the death penalty.

This film, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, follows prison warden Bernardine Williams (Alfre Woodard) through a crisis in the lead up to the thirteenth execution she must oversee. The twelfth execution, which opens the film, went wrong and now she is under extra scrutiny as time draws near for convicted murderer Antony Woods (Aldis Hodge).

We follow Williams closely and it is clear she is struggling – she is drinking too much, not sleeping and arguing with her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce). He wants them both to retire – an interesting flip on the usual portrayal of a wife begging her husband to slow down and spend more time at home. But she is still driven by her job, and wants to see this through.

This is clearly not an easy or light film to watch, but it is beautifully made, very tight and taut, and the acting is universally superb. You will find yourself drawn into the prison world, the thoughts of the young man on death row, his lawyer (Richard Schiff), desperate to obtain a last-minute reprieve and Woodard’s warden, doing her best to do everything by the book and not let anyone involved down. We see the murder victim’s parents and hear the protestors always outside the prison. We feel every agonising moment as time ticks down.

Like Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing, this is a fiercely moral story that does not tell you what to think, but forces you to look, and think, and reflect on what it means for one human institution legally to take a life – and the effect that will have on the staff in that institution.

All the performances are strong, and the film deserved its Sundance prize (director Chinonye Chukwu was, shockingly, the first black woman to win the Grand Jury Prize) but Alfre Woodard is truly awards-worthy. She doesn’t need showy speeches – her thoughts and emotions are clear on her face, which fills the screen. Woodard deserves every acting prize going.

Watch the film via its website – select your local cinema or organisation you want to support and they willll receive 50% of the profit from your viewing.

To celebrate the release of the film, there will be a special online Q&A with writer-director Chinonye Chukwu and actors Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge and Wendell Pierce from 8.00pm BST on Friday 16 July on the Birds’ Eye View Facebook Channel.

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