NEW YORK (CBS) Hilary Swank finds herself in familiar territory in "Conviction," playing a single mother and high school dropout, who puts herself through law school to overturn her brother's wrongful murder conviction.
Playing a working-class underdog puts Hilary Swank in her comfort zone. It's a niche that has served her well, winning her two Oscars thus far ("Million Dollar Baby", "Boys Don't Cry").
In "Conviction," which is based on a true story, Swank turns in a first-rate, steely, determined performance as Betty Anne Waters, a Massachusetts waitress , who struggles for 18 years to vindicate her incarcerated brother, Kenneth (Sam Rockwell) , of a crime he did not commit back in the early 1980's. Her character is convinced her brother, a well known town rabblerouser, did not receive a fair trial, because of his troubled past.
Fueled by reports of old cases reversed by DNA evidence, she risks everything, including the good will of her family, to try to prove Kenneth's innocence. She works relentlessly to uncover evidence that through DNA testing (that didn't exist at the time of the original trial) might exonerate Kenneth.
Swank, who also serves as the executive producer, turns in an intense, potentially award-worthy performance, in an uplifting story, that will have you dabbing at the corner of your eye on more than one occasion. She manages to effectively capture the sheer, dogged determination of one single woman and the impact she had - very much in the same vein as "Erin Brokovich" did. Sam Rockwell, Juliette Lewis as Kenneth's ex-girlfriend, and Minnie Driver as Swank's witty, classmate and friend, are well cast and turn in strong performances.
Where the film loses some luster is in the lack of depth in exploring Swank's relationship with her husband and family. Director Tony Goldwyn seems content with the somewhat sketchy, cliched at times, script screenwriter Pamela Gray uses to portray Waters.
One wonders what other, deeper tensions existed between her and her husband and sons before her life became consumed with proving her brother's innocence. What was it in her own DNA and upbringing that made her willing to sacrifice everything for the special bond she shared with her brother - one of eight siblings she had? Also interesting,was the decision not to highlight the fact that Kenneth Waters died just six short months after his sister's life-long struggle to see justice served. Something, no doubt, that would have deflected from the film's attempt to be the "feel good" movie of the year.
Something else that will cause some deflection is the fact that the real-life family members of the murder victim portrayed in the movie have lashed out at Swank and the film's producers, questioning their ethics for not consulting the family over the events surrounding the death of their mother, Katharina Brow. Through their high-profile attorney, Gloria Allred, Melrose and Charlie Brow are questioning how their mother will be portrayed in the film.
No doubt this real-life drama will present an added dimension to already charged performances in a film that will undoubtedly make Oscar stand up and take note.