The Conspirator

Director: Robert Redford
Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Justin Long and Evan Rachel Wood
Distributor: Rialto Films
Runtime: 118 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Mature themes and violence

As well as being a charismatic actor, Robert Redford is a talented director (Ordinary People, A River Runs Through It, The Horse Whisperer). Several of his films address political and social concerns, not always successfully (Lions for Lambs). But his latest film, The Conspirator, is a finely wrought, memorably cinematic Civil War court-room drama that relates uncomfortably to the post-9/11 world that America lives in today.

The Conspirator is set in the aftermath of the assassination of US President Abraham Lincoln, which took place on Good Friday, April 14 1865, five days after the Confederate army surrendered to Union force.

The story of Lincoln’s assassination by actor John Wilkes Booth at a theatre in Washington while attending a play is well known. But less familiar is the hunt and bringing to trial of several other conspirators, whose purpose in plotting to assassinate Lincoln, along with his Vice President and Secretary of State, was to rally Confederate troops to remain fighting.

Writer James Solomon took 16 years to hone his script, and the focus of The Conspirator is Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the owner of a boarding house where the conspirators met, and the mother of John Surratt, a Confederate supporter who was involved in an earlier plot to kidnap Lincoln, but claimed to be in Canada when the President was shot.

A devout Catholic, Mary Surratt was the sole woman amongst seven men arrested and charged with conspiring to murder Lincoln, and like her co-accused, Surratt was tried by a hastily convened military tribunal rather than a civil court.

The film’s focus is squarely on the danger in national emergencies of allowing the desire for exemplary justice and revenge to take precedence over human rights. But Redford’s ability to evince nuanced performances from his actors, and Solomon’s great skill in fashioning drama from the bare bones of little known history, makes The Conspirator absorbing viewing.

Amongst the talented cast, Robin Wright (Pledge, State of Play) is splendid as Mary Surratt, giving her ambiguous character great depth and dignity. Also impressive is James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland, Atonement) as Frederick Aiken, the young, inexperienced lawyer and Union war-hero, who agrees to defend Mary Surratt against his instincts, but becomes passionate in her support.

Tom Wilkinson (The Kennedys) plays Reverdy Johnson, Aiken’s mentor and former Attorney General, while giving clout and believability in smaller roles are Kevin Kline as secretary of war, and Colm Meaney as the president of the military tribunal.

No less important in making The Conspirator more than a history lesson or political tract is Newton Thomas Sigel’s light-leached cinematography, which brings a gritty daguerreotype realism and powerful sense of time and place to a compelling story.

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