Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Just Mercy – lead performances and civil rights at risk capture attention despite muted direction (UK and Irish cinemas from 17 January)

By telling the story of Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy throws light onto a racist and corrupt criminal justice system in Alabama, and his work from the early 1990s to defend some of the prisoners on death row who sentences were very uncertain. Sadly, it’s also a somewhat universal tale that still has relevance in the US today, though are also significant echoes in a number of recent news stories about summary justice, humiliation, collusion and discrimination at home and abroad.
“You think those fancy words are going to get you anywhere in Alabama?”

Michael B Jordan plays the young lawyer who is not daunted by the total lack of success of overturning convictions of felons facing the death sentence in the state of Alabama, and in particular his work to shed light on the manipulation, intimidation, and even ignored witnesses, that put Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx) behind bars for the murder of a white woman he did not commit.

It’s a strong storyline, and Jordan and Foxx’s performances, often appearing head-to-head in prison interview rooms, are sturdy. Brie Larson is relegated to the role of paralegal colleague Eva Ansley with whom Stevenson can have lofty conversations, including one chat set at the side of a lake seemingly for no particular reason other than aesthetics. The local Sheriff and the District Attorney are in each other’s pockets, though escape being as fully demonised on-screen as they surely deserve.

The strongest and most affecting scenes occur inside the prison. The camaraderie on death row paints a remarkable picture of community and mutual support. A scene of execution is handled sensitively and is a crucial set-up for a number of characters to change their tune. The courtroom scenes are overly succinct and act as dramatic shortcuts, with surging preachy speeches and very little legalese, removing any suspicion that the 137-minute film is about to turn into a docudrama, but also removing any feeling of realism.

Somehow the passion of Stevenson and the perilous life and death nature of his clients’ cases is unexpectedly restrained as the story unfolds. Yet while the importance of the true story behind the film may have deserved a more bombastic movie, the lead performances and the civil rights at risk capture your attention despite Destin Daniel Cretton’s muted direction.

Just Mercy will be screened in Movie House Cinemas and Queen’s Film Theatre as well as other UK and Irish cinemas from Friday 17 January.

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