Review: The Conspirator

By: Mike McCrann
4.22.2011

With all the garbage I have seen lately, I was thrilled at the chance to see The Conspirator this past week.

This Robert Redford directed drama about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the trial of Mary Surratt, who owned the boarding house where most of the assassination conspirators lived, is an odd April film release. Most films like this are released in late Fall to qualify for the Oscars. It is almost a ritual that a good film cannot be released this early in the year. And The Conspirator is just that: a good film that unfolds like a good mystery.

The Conspirator That said, while I liked the film and respected its intentions, the emotional intensity of the subject matter did not explode on screen as I had hoped. Part of the problem is the casting of James McAvoy as the young lawyer who is forced to defend Mary Surratt. McAvoy was quite good in Atonement and quite fun in Wanted with Angelina Jolie, but the Scottish-born actor is miscast as lawyer Frederick Aiken. He is not bad in the role but just seems adrift in this period piece. Both he and Justin Long (as one of his lawyer friends) seem to have stepped out of a teen movie or a Drew Barrymore comedy. A much stronger actor should have been cast.

Robin Wright (formerly Robin Wright Penn when she was married to Oscar winner Sean Penn) plays the pivotal role of Mary Surratt; she is very talented and up to the demands of the part. But director Redford really never lets us see what makes her tick (or what he thinks does) and there is not enough of an emotional connection between the actress and the role. Wright has a number of powerful scenes but there is not that one big one that such a controversial role demands.

Those points aside, The Conspirator is still a fascinating look at a small part of Lincoln history that few of us know. Plus the main point is not whether Mary Surratt was innocent or guilty but the fact that she was not given a civilian trial. Instead, she was tried by an army tribunal who was out to convict everyone involved— guilty or innocent. The connections between this plot and the post 9/11 Guantanamo Bay situation are very apparent, and Redford does not use a sledge hammer to drive home the point. The Conspirator1

The cinematography is outstanding, especially in the court scenes. The supporting cast, including sexy Jonathan Groff as one of the witnesses against Surratt, and Kevin Kline as the evil War Secretary Edwin Stanton, is superb. The production itself (actually filmed in Savannah, Georgia) is magnificent. Robert Redford has directed in a straightforward, non-fussy manner. The assignation of Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth is shown in detail and is quite riveting.

The Conspirator cannot be praised too highly as the dearth of serious films out there right now is getting scarier and scarier. It pains me not to be able to give this film a total rave but it is still one of the most interesting movies of the year and well worth seeing.

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