Recipient of a Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award, Robert Redford's The Conspirator
is a meticulously crafted yet not particularly involving historical drama that takes place in the wake of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, Vice-President Johnson and the Secretary of State. New lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union war hero, reluctantly agrees to defend the woman, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). As the trial begins to unfold, Aiken begins to realize that Surratt may be innocent - merely bait to attract her son, John Surratt, the lone alleged conspirator who escaped.
Redford has long been known for his disdain for all things excessively dramatic, a method of filmmaking put to wonderful use in The Conspirator,
a character and story-driven drama captivating because of its often compelling performances and because of the intelligent and intriguing script from co-writers Gregory Bernstein and James D. Solomon. Whereas many directors would have been tempted, or perhaps compelled by the studio, to insert unnecessary action and derivative histrionics, Redford's reputation speaks for itself and while his films aren't always necessarily box-office gold they stand the test of time over and over again.
is not one of Redford's best films, at times too dry and too focused on the wrong character. Yet, Redford at his worst (and this is not his worst) remains better than most and The Conspirator
will enthrall history buffs and those who appreciates its devotion to detail, dialogue and stunning authenticity.
James McAvoy usually plays broader than he does here, yet his role as Frederick Aiken seems nearly perfect for the young, still underrated actor. McAvoy's performance is no less powerful than we've come to expect from him, yet it is a more inwardly expressed tension that is worn on his face and in his body language. Stoic yet fearless, Robin Wright is extraordinary as Mary Surratt, a woman who has no hesitation to die for that which she believes in...a concept that seems to lost upon virtually all around her, most notably Edwin Stanton (a fantastic Kevin Kline), whose rush to judgment and seeking of immediate justice unquestionably mirrors current times. Mary is determined to protect her son (Johnny Simmons), while her daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), carries a strong presence here as well.
is compelling if you surrender yourself to it, something that may require a bit more work than most audiences are used to doing these days. Redford requests your attention without using special effects or action sequences, instead intending upon the story to draw you in. For the most part, the story does draw you in despite occasionally plodding dialogue and excessive and unnecessary detail. It is frightening how truly un-American Americans can be when tragedy strikes, a message that we appear to have not yet learned in this land where the Constitution and our daily reality often seem to conflict.
The first film production from the new American Film Company, The Conspirator
is the first in a line of films with a mission to be historically accurate feature films. Production designer Kalina Ivanov has taken great care to give the film a true sense of time and setting, despite the film having actually been shot in Savannah, Georgia. D.P. Newton Thomas Sigel's camera work is superior, a remarkable achievement blending image and story seamlessly.
At one point, Aiken pleads "abandoning the Constitution is not the answer.... In our grief let us not betray our better judgment and take part in an Inquisition."
Indeed, the folks at Heartland got this one right...The Conspirator
may not always be the most involving film, but it is a Truly Moving Picture.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic