James McAvoy, Robin Wright
With so much attention paid to the facts and the visuals, the drama of The Conspirator does sometimes get left behind
In the wake of the assassination of President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth is killed and his co-conspirators arranged for a very public trail. When the innocent of boarding house owner Mary Surratt (Wright) is brought into question, a young lawyer (McAvoy) is assigned to her case against his better judgement.
The Conspirator begins with a portentous recreation of the night Lincoln was shot, entrenched in a sense of grandiose history which wreathes each action and location with a sense of soft focus myth. For those relatively unconcerned with the event itself, it’s a leaden opening that could easily have been done away with in favour of getting to the meat of the piece.
It’s a problem that constantly recurs in the film, which touches on many different strands that could have made interesting films in their own right – like the manhunt for Booth or even the trial of rest of the group. That said, there’s merit to taking an oblique look at widely recorded events, and the story presented here is far from boring.
As the death of Lincoln causes agony across the nation, the mob is angry for blood and the government, in the guise of Kevin Klines’ Edwin Stanton is happy to give it to them with the summary execution of everyone even nominally involved. Initially wary of defending Surratt, McAvoy is set the challenge of proving her guilty before he can abandon the case. As his investigation proceeds, a trail of corruption is unveiled that forces him to redouble his efforts to help the woman go free.
The Conspirator is the first feature produced by the American Film Company – a film house dedicated to bringing great historical stories to life. And it certainly shows; the visuals reek of authenticity, along with Newton Thomas Sigel lustrous photography and many court scenes which sound like they could come verbatim from transcripts.
The result is certainly attractive and director Robert Redford peoples it with an impressive cast and mostly impressive performances. McAvoy is solid as dogged lawyer Aiken and he’s matched by the arresting Wright as Surratt. The other actors fade somewhat into the background, including the ever watchable Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood and even a barely contained Irish accent issuing forth from our own Colm Meaney. Toby Kebbell pops in as Booth and gets far too little screen time while Danny Huston continues to gum up our screens in another lifeless performance.
With so much attention paid to the facts and the visuals, the drama of The Conspirator does sometimes get left behind in long talky scenes which aim for righteous indignation but fizzle out in forced eloquence. It has moments that are compelling, with the finale wringing all the right emotions from the audience, but it’s hard to know who we are really fighting for when the film refuses to paint anyone as a significant villain.
Attractive and nicely performed, the fact heavy story-telling of The Conspirator doesn’t provide the most exciting narrative of the year but history buffs will enjoy its oblique angle on the events surrounding the Lincoln assassination and sensational case which changed American law forever.