Film Review: 'The Fear of 13'

★★★★☆
An irrational fear of the number thirteen is not a concept that many will be familiar with. Unlucky or not, the word in of itself held no particular meaning for convicted murderer Nick but is representative of the process of learning, self-education and personal enlightenment he achieved through a voracious appetite for books while incarcerated. David Sington's enthralling documentary The Fear of 13 (2015) charts a man's journey towards the light from the darkest recesses of his own imprisoned mind.

Having maintained his innocence from arrest, to conviction and through many years of internment, opening notes inform that after two decades on Death Row, and with no foreseeable hope for a reprieve, he would finally petition the Pennsylvania Courts to carry out his execution. Despite the unspeakable injustice, brutality and inhumanity it entails, The Fear of 13 attains a hard fought optimism with a redemptive message so often lacking in prison-set drama and non-fiction. Nick is a captivating, even mesmerising, subject.

Clean-shaven and sharply dressed in a crisp blue shirt, he speaks with an unexpectedly gentle eloquence not normally attributed to an inmate serving over 100 years of jail time, convicted with the rape and stabbing of young Delaware mother, Linda Craig, in December 1981. To divulge too much information would negate the retelling of his own life but it is through Nick's voice alone that extraordinary events are peeled back like layers of an onion in a manner befitting any Dashiel Hammett novel. Given the singular viewpoint, the frequent lighting of just the left side of Nick's face, casting a dark shadow on the right, would perhaps point to a certain duplicity were it not for the fact that his testimony had been independently verified. It is to the credit of Sington that The Fear of 13 evolves as an extended monologue. Its pacing is superb and Nick is such a compelling storyteller that the need for other talking heads is superfluous. Acting out the voices and mannerisms of prison guards, policemen and lawyers with an almost actor-like ability, his gestures and mannerisms are reinforced with the accentuated sound effects of a gun being cocked, a window smashed or the jangle of a set of keys on 'B Block'.

Nick was kept in total silence for two full years, beaten to a pulp should he speak a single word out loud. His toughened exterior finally breaks when he speaks of Jackie, a social worker he would eventually wed, and slow-motion images of a young boy running in a wood coming across a blurred adult figure form an ominous undercurrent only elucidated in the closing moments. Seeing no hope for the future after multiple setbacks it was only his demands to the Pennsylvania courts to put him to death that prompted a dedicated re-inspection of his case, the development of DNA testing in the late 1980s a vital cog in the litigious machine in which Nick was ensnared. Almost too extraordinary for fiction, the story of the lifelong ordeal undergone by Nick makes for utterly compelling viewing. Unlike the US legal system, Sington's The Fear of 13 gives him the justice he fully deserves.

David Sington's The Fear of 13 is released in cinemas on 13 November. Visit thefearof13.com.

Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens

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