Reviewed by Damien Straker on August 4, 2011
Rialto Distribution presents a film directed
by Robert Redford
by James D. Solomon
Starring: James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline and Robin Wright
Running Time: 123 minutes
Released: July 28, 2011
The Conspirator follows the aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, as eight people are put on trial to be charged with the murder. One of the suspects is Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who admits that she boarded John Wilkes Booth in her home, where he and his men may have been planning the assassination. Her son John (Johnny Simmons) is also somehow involved with the conspiracy as well, but he managed to escape before he could be captured. Aiding Mary's case is Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). He does not believe that she should be left as the patsy she's being painted as. Pulling the strings of the court is Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), a politician who is intent on using the case to manipulate both the North and the South. Johnson hires Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Civil War veteran and lawyer, who has returned home to his wife Sarah (Alexis Bledel) and is initially reluctant to take on the case and assumes that Mary is already guilty. But facing off against attorney Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), Aiken realises the increasing necessity of bringing John into the trial to prove Mary's innocence and contacts Mary's daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) for help.
Some odd casting choices and a midsection slump mar an otherwise compelling and entirely relevant courtroom thriller. Director Robert Redford has chosen an untold aspect of the Lincoln assassination, certainly one I was not familiar with. Though it may seem like a distinctly American story, the film holds a universal power that almost anyone could respond to. Redford's timing is precise. He's made a thriller that's not much interested in the 'whodunit' but the moral ambiguity surrounding courtroom show trials. Early in the film, Johnson argues that Mary has been held extensively without conviction so that the court could arrange its case, predetermining her fate. In trying to justify the court's outlandish decisions like this Holt's says to Aiken, "in times of war the law falls silent." He fires back "It shouldn't." And the court scenes are intercut with Stanton justifying the sentencing as a fear campaign that will satisfy the North's vengeance and scare the South. The story is complex, not because of whether Mary is guilty or not - it's never been discovered whether she really did conspire with Booth - but because of the reluctance of the American court system to give Surratt a fair trial. All historical films must find a contemporary relevancy and there's a powerful, universal subtext here about the way governments confuse vengeance and justice. It's impossible not to look at this film and think of the way that both the US and Australian governments have responded to terrorism in recent years, through mistreatment of political prisoners and terrorism laws preventing basic human rights, without proper justification.
As a piece of entertainment The Conspirator is a competently made thriller, too. It's been beautifully photographed by Redford and his cinematographer Newtown Thomas Sigel. The detail around the sets and the costumes and the muted colour scheme are impeccable. The night scenes are particularly handsome, decorated by shadows and lit by the burning wicks of candles. But some of this authenticity is undone by some peculiar casting choices. Casting British actors in a distinctly American period is at first very distracting. Tom Wilkinson is fine with what he does but a less recognisable American actor would have been more immersive. McAvoy seems like an odd choice too but he shows his class and maturity as an actor. He's passionate and charismatic in this film as a man who is understandably skeptical about a Southerner but gradually builds to a determined, if futile, cause. Robin Wright and Evan Rachel Wood bring great emotion to their work as Southerners realising, rather ironically, the difficulty of sacrificing one person, like John, for the greater good. Disappointingly, Justin Long is miscast and completely out of place with a fake moustache, and Alexis Bledel can only do so much with an unresolved subplot about Aiken's home life. The pace of the film also sags around the midpoint, as the finer and details of the case become muddy. But the surprising and moving climax ensures that an appropriate amount of feeling and emotion is restored into many of these characters.