Sometimes the fates align in complicated and chastening ways. Clemency, an outsider in the 2019-20 awards conversation, opens in the UK in the middle of a pandemic that has shown up such chatter as a trifling privilege, and in a week in which the US carried out its first federal execution in 17 years. (The killing of murderer Daniel Lewis Lee by lethal injection - a process objected to by the families of Lee's victims, yet pushed through by an administration fresh from commuting the sentence of long-time presidential ally Roger Stone - had been delayed by the appeal courts, but was carried out in the early hours of Tuesday.) The business of Chinonye Chukwu's quietly gripping drama is to examine the decisions that lead up to such an execution, and to explore the emotional toll such decisions take. This it does from the unusual perspective of a prison warden, typically a passive functionary in movies such as these: Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), introduced via a horrific setpiece that illustrates what can happen when executions, surely the least pleasant aspect of the warden's job on the best of days, go disastrously wrong. As a Black woman, Bernadine would seem a good hire for any institution that means to present as outward-looking and forward-thinking. The low-key tension of Chukwu's film derives from its tacit suggestion that Bernadine may just be a front: that, like the comparably stranded Warden Ward (Susan Heyward) in TV's Orange is the New Black, she is very much as her prisoners, at the mercy of a generally merciless, apparently unreformable capitalistic system.
As we rejoin Bernadine in the wake of this initial trauma, time has passed, but she remains understandably haunted. Her loving husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) comes downstairs to find her using late-night television to drown out unanswered questions about the inmate's demise, and her own part in it. She also has the beginnings of an off-the-clock drink problem, and the first sign of the exceptionally high level Woodard is operating at here is that her drunk acting - always a challenge, never more so than in a film where it serves as the closest thing to light relief - is second to none. Bernadine spies a chance to make amends, however, as the hour of execution nears for another inmate, Anthony (Aldis Hodge), who's served 15 years for the murder of a police officer during a robbery. She has an ally this time, albeit an ally who first presents on the other side of her desk: the prisoner's lawyer Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), a greying liberal in cheap suits, who's gathered up his remaining crumbs of optimism and resolved to get this kid a reprieve, to earn both himself and the film a happy ending. If that outcome never feels especially nailed-on, that's because Chukwu knows from harsh American experience that it's all too much responsibility to place on any one person's shoulders. All very well to insist on an eye for an eye - as this system traditionally has - but you try being the paramedic assigned to find a functioning vein on a former junkie strapped to the execution gurney, or the officer charged with pushing the button that will snuff out the life of another, or indeed the warden asking her prisoners who will come to claim their lifeless bodies. No wonder Anthony's response to the latter question is to try and dash out his brains on the walls of his cell. You wouldn't want to have to think about this, either.
The right to live, and the right to decide who lives and dies, remain among the biggest subjects not just in politics but drama, and it would be easy to imagine a tubthumping, Stanley Kramer- or Dead Man Walking-ish melodrama being made with these characters, jabbing its finger at the viewer's conscience with every plaintive music cue. Chukwu favours a subtler, more procedural approach, which possibly explains her preference for experienced TV professionals (Schiff and Michael O'Neill from The West Wing, Danielle Brooks from OITNB); she demonstrates a sure feel both for the long working day of the correctional facility and those elements of the process that might cause most strain, the systemic dysfunction you carry home in your head and your heart. The unusual emphasis placed on Bernadine's domestic life rounds out the heroine's professional quandary, but then the entire drama feels multi-dimensional: much as the leads emerge as neither saints, martyrs nor villains, superlative writing and playing ensures there isn't a supporting character who feels like a plot point, an archetype or an afterthought. (Watch what Brooks does with her only scene, and marvel.) Chukwu isn't above a last-reel walk to the death chamber, but it allows her to replay the opening snafu with the knowledge of everything that leads up to this moment, an awareness of those points where America's rattling conveyor-belt of death could be usefully halted or rerouted. One way of countering the unthinking, unblinking apparatus of the state - the machinery that holds to that Old Testament idea of justice and a set way of doing things; which books 'em, fucks 'em and ships the bodies back out in a cost-conscious cardboard box - is to think anew: Clemency duly concludes not with shouting, wailing and gnashing of teeth, but a pause for thought, and at least one of this century's great close-ups. As the events of this week - and, indeed, the past few months - have only underlined, there is a lot of thinking still to be done.
Clemency opens at London's Genesis Cinema, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player and Bohemia Media from today.