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This is the adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s book of the same name, where she talks about her work counselling death row inmates, and her campaign against the death penalty. There are some slight differences – in the book, Sister Helen discusses two inmates; here it just one inmate, with elements of both men incorporated. Also, in the book, electrocution was by electric chair, and in the film it is by lethal injection, but apart from that, the film remains true to the spirit and message of the book.

I first watched this film in the late 90s, and I remember sitting in stunned silence when it finished. I naively thought that I would not be so affected by it this time around, especially as I knew what was coming. WRONG! I actually spent about half of the film in tears.

Susan Sarandon (in an Oscar winning performance) portrays Sister Helen, and Sean Penn is Matthew Poncelet, the death row inmate to whom she offers friendship and spiritual guidance. Both performances are blisteringly good. The beauty of this film is that it doesn’t try and defend or excuse the heinous crime committed by Poncelet, and nor does it try to make him a sympathetic character (frankly, he isn’t). But this film is about more than one man. It is about the rights and wrongs of using the death penalty as punishment for crimes. Personally I am completely against the death penalty, but I respect the makers of this film (and Sister Helen) for daring to show both sides of the argument. The grieving families of Poncelet’s victims are portrayed with sympathy and honesty. Of course they are angry because of their loss – they have every right to be, and their desire to see their children’s murderer executed is entirely understandable. The film is balanced and as objective as it can be, given that it is based on the book of an anti-death penalty campaigner.

It is thoughtful, and thought-provoking, as a film with this subject at its core should be. Whichever side of the argument you’re on, I would highly recommend watching this. Just superb.

Year of release: 1995

Director: Tim Robbins

Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, John Kilik, Tim Robbins, Rudd Simmons, Allan Nicholls, Mark Seldis, R.A. White

Writers: Sister Helen Prejean (book), Tim Robbins

Main cast: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky, Raymond J. Barry, Roberta Maxwell

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Click here for my review of the book.

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