In Clemency, on-form Alfre Woodard plays death row officer Bernadine Williams, whose job it is to oversee inmate executions. The film launches the audience into the tough subject matter quickly with a brutal opening scene which relies as much on sound as visuals to shock. Unfortunately, it’s one of only two or three scenes that have lasting impact after the film ends.

Clemency balances precariously between relationship drama and legal thriller, but doesn’t completely fulfil either. Bernadine is interesting and gives Woodard plenty of psychological damage and emotional uncertainty to play with. However, her scenes in prison are more engaging than those at home and husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) feels nowhere near as multidimensional as the protagonist.

The legal drama, too, feels underdeveloped. A central plot strand focuses on Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a man awaiting execution whose lawyers and activists are desperately trying to win him clemency—a pardon from his sentence. It is never made explicit whether or not Anthony committed the crime he’s been convicted of (and denies), though, and it seems like a lost opportunity for suspense to mine the story even further, even if that still leaves room for audience interpretation. As it is, we seem to float around Anthony’s storyline, revisiting it every few scenes at a distance, generally from Bernadine’s perspective. While this is justified as a tool for her character exploration, most scenes lag. The pace, in general, is tempered and only ever deviates into genuine intensity in the opening and closing scenes. The notable lack of soundtrack and colour palette also add to the sedate feel.

The film, therefore, misses several key ingredients. Frustratingly, Woodard and Hodge’s performances are stellar and powerful and director Chinonye Chukwu does create incredibly powerful moments—just not enough of them. The film seems bogged down in some dry dialogue and its almost-two hours running time becomes uncomfortable. Clemency asks us to invest in Bernadine and Anthony, but could use more filmic tools to engage us.

Available on Curzon Home Cinema as part of Edinburgh Film Festival at Home from Fri 17 Jul 2020