The true story of Betty Anne Waters, the working single mother who put herself through law school in order to defend her brother whom she believed to be wrongly imprisoned for murder, not only sounds like an inspiring story but perfect material for a film of familial love and justice triumphant.
But in the hands of director Tony Goldwyn, working from a screenplay by Pamela Gray, the story's inherent dramatic and rousing elements have been dampened. Conviction is a solid, professionally made film that never soars despite the story and the best efforts of its talented cast.
Hilary Swank excels playing working class, a la Million Dollar Baby; her atypical Hollywood looks never a distraction from her performance. The role of Betty Anne – determined, courageous but vulnerable – must have seemed ideal to Swank, and she plays her with the zeal of a bloodhound with just one objective: the freedom of her brother.
That's Kenny Waters, played by the ever-reliable Sam Rockwell who is perfectly fine in the role of a man who is no angel but who's not the Devil either. We witness enough of Kenny's temper (the film flashes back to happier, pre-conviction times, and less happier times in the Waters' siblings childhood) to believe he may just be capable of murder. But Betty Anne has no doubts, and Swank and Rockwell make for a perfect pairing.
It's also wonderful to see Minnie Driver back on screen. She doesn't get a whole lot to do necessarily - cracking-wise as Betty Anne's law studies classmate, Abra Rice, the only other student to have gone through puberty - but she's a welcome presence, as is Juliet Lewis, uglying up as white trash, and threatening to steal the film in her two brief scenes as an ex-girlfriend of Kenny's.
Melissa Leo, as Kenny's arresting officer, also has limited screen time. She doesn't chew scenery in the way Lewis does but reminds us yet again how good a character actor she is, completely different from her Oscar-nominated turn in The Fighter.
But good actors in the service of ordinary material can only do so much. Even as they try to invest this true story with requisite power, Goldwyn, and the screenplay, keeps the cast well and truly grounded, ensuring an unfavourable verdict.