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Dead Man Walking


Year: 1995 
Running Time:
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 (XWide) 
Certificate: BBFC 15 Cert – Not suitable for under 15s 
Subtitles: The level of subtitling in this film is unknown to WSC 
Directed by Unknown 
Starring: Unknown  

The film that finally won Susan Sarandon a long overdue Best Actress oscar, Dead Man Walking is a remarkable achievement both in front of and behind the camera. Films dealing with the issue of Death Row inmates rarely make for comfortable viewing, and Tim Robbins' foray into the genre is no exception.

Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) is a convicted murderer and rapist, his appeals for clemency are falling on deaf ears and the countdown to his execution is well underway. His letter to Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) is not received with enthusiasm. Prejean is unconvinced of her ability to cope with such a case and her friends do little to convince her otherwise. Despite her misgivings, Prejean does eventually consent to replying to Poncelet, leading to a bond forming between them as Poncelet comes to terms with his imminent death, and Prejean attempts to confront her own demons, ultimately finding the strength to enable Poncelet to face his.

What is refreshing about Dead Man Walking is Robbins' absolute refusal to offer any easy, pat answers to a difficult and emotive issue. The film neatly counterbalances the ordeal that Poncelet faces with the crime that placed him in the cell in the first place. The audience shares Prejean's experiences as she encounters both the criminal and the victims of the crime. The finale, although harrowing, is a masterful example of such a parallel narrative structure and will affect, whatever your opinion on the subject, the hardest heart.

Robbins is ably supported by two outstanding performances. Sarandon manages to portray the discomfort and initial revulsion of Prejean without making the character unsympathetic or weak. Penn is a direct contrast, as he succeeds in conveying a repellent character; racist and unrepentent, but simultaneously terrified of facing the consequences of his crime.

Dead Man Walking is not an easy film to watch, this is a far cry from traditional Hollywood fluff, but it is as compelling a film as any you will see this year.

Caroline Smith

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Screenings of this film:

1996/1997 Autumn Term (35mm)
1996/1997 Autumn Term (35mm)