The Conspirator, 2010.
Directed by Robert Redford.
Starring James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood, Justin Long and Colm Meaney.
The lone female charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination trial of Abraham Lincoln, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) is forced to rely on her reluctant lawyer to uncover the truth and save her life.
Director Robert Redford takes the story of the conspiracy to kill, and subsequent murder of President Abraham Lincoln and expertly creates a courtroom drama in his latest film, The Conspirator.
Set shortly after the Civil War, the film tells the story of Mary Surratt, a Southern woman who ran a boarding house where several of the men (including the eventual assassin John Wilkes Booth) met and devised their plot. There was no evidence to suggest she was a conspirator herself, but swift justice was needed to appease the mournful Americans. To complicate matters, Surratt’s son was one of the conspirators, but he vanished once the assassination had taken place.
Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy with a wonderful American accent) is the war-hero turned lawyer who is assigned to defend her, and like any good courtroom film, he doubts her innocence to begin with. Although in this film, his doubts are born from his prejudice against the South, not the defendant herself.
The film is well paced throughout its two hour screen time, and is intelligent, thought-provoking, well acted and scripted, and blends history and entertainment which satisfied me on many levels.
The film boasts an excellent cast including Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, and Robin Wright as the conflicted Mary Surratt. I was also impressed to see younger actors like Justin Long, Evan Rachel Wood and Alexis Bledel adding historical drama to their CVs. All in all, an excellent cast on top form, all helped by a script which knows where it wants to go and what it wants to say, without preaching to its audience about right and wrong.
Aiken is faced with an ever increasingly difficult task of defending Surratt when the powers above him start applying the pressure by getting to his witnesses, and also interfering in his personal life. Yet this is all done with a level of believability and at no time do you question the film’s historical accuracy. Surratt’s case was a landmark case for the US judicial system, and the ethics between justice vs country are still as relevant now as they were then; Redford knows this and has made a film which asks its audience to think about how the past events resonate today.
For historians and anyone interested in history, The Conspirator is essential viewing for it educates, asks questions, and entertains. Not many films this year will do all three, and it is a shame this film will be overshadowed by the sequels, comic-book adaptations, and animations; all of which could learn from film-making like this.
VERDICT – 7.5 OUT OF 10