Published Apr 28, 2011Having been in the works for about ten years – since somewhere around the time when another fairly significant American tragedy occurred – it's safe to say that this tale of partiality surrounding the Lincoln assassination conspiracy trial has a message grounded in history repeating itself, especially considering director Robert Redford's propensity for political posturing. Fortunately, aside from a couple of pointed comments about constitutional adherence, The Conspirator sticks to a template of historical re-enactment and value supposition, letting flagrant injustices speak for, and transpose, themselves.
Said injustice involves Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a woman running a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and other assassination conspirators roomed and met. After Lincoln was shot, she was rounded up and charged with conspiring based on proximity and hearsay, thrust into a courtroom without a jury, given the young, openly biased Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) as a lawyer.
With naturalist backlighting creating a frequent diaphanous haze to further legitimize the creaky historical detail evident in every minute detail and prop, this biopic admonition uses the frustration and ideological fluidity of Aiken as he attempts to defend his client amidst a never-ending series of roadblocks and unreasonable biases. His preliminary presuppositions are shattered when he sees firsthand how futile his efforts at defence are in the face of a military tribunal with an agenda led by the single-minded Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline).
While this perspective does open the film to audience investment and identification, engaging us in a similar sense of outrage, a prioritization of dry facts and unlikely spoken ideologue as character identity shrouds everything with cold formality. It's easy to appreciate the craftsmanship and intensity of the key performances involved – in particular Wright, who makes the most of every moment – but a generalized lack of plausible human interaction beyond political discussions makes it difficult to enter this world and fully engage in the passions on screen.
Had some of the conversations and scenario constructs used a more veiled approach to didactics, allowing subtle character quirks to add another dimension to the framework, The Conspirator could have gone from relevant and decent to powerful and resonant. (Alliance)