Review: The Conspirator
PLOT: A dramatization of the trial of Mary Surrat (Robin Wright Penn), who; along with seven men, is accused of being confederates of John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell)- the man who killed Abraham Lincoln. Shes defended by a Union war hero/lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) whos initially reluctant to defend Surrat, but soon becomes convinced of her essential innocence.
REVIEW: THE CONSPIRATOR is the latest film from Robert Redford, who, in addition to being one of the most heralded leading men of the last fifty years, has also proven himself to be a more than capable director, even controversially winning the Oscar in 1980 for ORDINARY PEOPLE (beating out Scorsese for RAGING BULL). In recent years, his career behind the camera has been pretty quiet, but THE CONSPIRATOR is truly his best film (as a director) since QUIZ SHOW.
It helps that hes got some great material to work with. The story behind Lincolns assassination is a fascinating one; with it being depicted in a number of films- going all the way back to THE BIRTH OF A NATION. One Ive always enjoyed in John Fords THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND, a highly fictionalized account of Dr. Samuel Mudd- the physician who operated on Booths leg after the assassination (Booth is regulated to the background here).
However, this seems to be the first time Surratts storys been told, and Im amazed it took so long, as its a fascinating one. Of the conspirators, Surratt was the one who most seemed to be a scapegoat, with the military court presiding over her trial having been whipped into a frenzy by the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (played by the great Kevin Kline, in his best role in years), and the grandstanding prosecutor, Joseph Holt (Danny Huston- highly reminiscent here of his father, John Huston), both of whom, it can be argued, might have been somewhat justified in trampling her civil rights as they were desperately trying to keep the fragile union together after years of bloodshed. Its a question of the greater good I suppose, and one thats still very relevant to our times.
Our noble hero, Aiken, seems like exactly the kind of role Redford would have played himself twenty or thirty years ago. A postscript notes that Aiken went on to become the first editor and chief of The Washington Post, not so coincidently the very same paper that Bob Woodward (who Redford immortalized in ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN) worked at during Watergate.
In the lead, James McAvoy is phenomenal. Its odd that its taken so long to get McAvoy in a leading role after making a surprisingly credible action hero in WANTED. Theres no trace of his natural Scottish accent on display, with him being very believable as a scarred union hero forced to defend someone he initially despises.
The other big role goes to Robin Wright as Marry Surratt, and shes quite good as the initially remote victim of circumstance, whos somewhat cold exterior doesnt help establish her innocence. Its a strong role for Wright- possibly worth of a best supporting actress nomination if this had come out closer to awards season.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by one of the best groups of character actors Ive seen assembled in a film since VALKYRIE. In addition to Danny Huston, and Kevin Kline, we get the brilliant Tom Wilkinson, Toby Kebbell, Colm Meaney, James Badge Dale (from THE PACIFIC), Justin Long, Alexis Bledel, Evan Rachel Wood, and Stephen Root- the list goes on and on! If ever there was a film that was perfectly acted, this is it.
If I have any complaints about THE CONSPIRATOR, its that it could have been compressed a bit. In an effort to be epic, this runs over two hours, but it could have been tightened up a tad in the middle. Its also worth noting that the opening assassination of Lincoln is so brilliantly staged that the rest of the film cant help but pale in comparison, as its the films most dynamic set piece.
If you enjoy a fascinating look at U.S history, THE CONSPIRATOR is really a choice selection, which will more than make due until Steven Spielbergs LINCOLN biopic comes out. Its an intriguing watch and well-worth seeing.
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