A stark, sombre drama with barely a second’s worth of levity, Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency is heavy, punishing stuff. It courts the kind of emotional extremes that reside right at the boundary between sobering sincerity and grand camp. Chukwu melds a pared-back, mildly minimalist mise-en-scène with the hard-hitting theatricality of her scenario and dialogue, each part to this unwieldy mixture displaying evident strengths, though their combined effect arguably less than their sum. There’s a Bergmanian depth and intensity being pursued here, nothing less, but while Chukwu is clearly a fine filmmaker, there have been few of Bergman’s talent through the whole of cinema history to date, and I wonder if only a true master such as he could have made such an ambitious project work as it must.
Clemency concerns Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), a warden at a prison holding death row inmates, facing down the rough prospect of presiding over another execution after the last one went nastily wrong; to boot, she’s drinking too much and experiencing problems with her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce). Though the movie seeks to make a mini-lead out of the condemned inmate Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), it’s largely a single character study, the camera fixating upon Woodard’s mesmerizing visage as if to purge out her innermost feelings by sheer force of effort. Woodard holds fast, only relenting when called upon by the script, allowing a remarkable combination of micro-expressions, subtle physical gestures and near-undetectable changes in mood to reveal the extent of Bernadine’s torment. Chukwu is astute enough not to let the political issues innate to her material lie wholly dormant, but also astute enough not to belabour them – instead, she examines them through the toll they take on her protagonist, keeping the movie smartly streamlined, its perspective tidy and thereby possessed of a greater depth of power.
In the stillness and silence, Clemency is a wonderfully expressive movie, holding on Woodard’s fine performance, seeing that she guides us along its emotional trail. These, however, are necessary details to cover problems in the screenplay, which attempts to wade further and deeper down too many tributaries along this trail; it winds up having to resort to pithy clichés and inadequacies to cut itself loose from the emotional tangles in which it finds itself. There’s such bountiful, indeed almost inconceivably abundant raw potency to these situations alone that Chukwu’s cumbersome dialogue spoils too many scenes with its melodramatic exchanges, saying too much and communicating too little. Yet her compassion, integral to Clemency‘s success, is clear, and as is Woodard’s. She’s a magnificent core to an otherwise mediocre movie.
This review is from the BFI London Film Festival. Neon will release Clemency in select theaters on December 27,