Director: Robert Redford
Writers: James D. Solomon (Screenplay), James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein (Story)
Principal cast: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson and Danny Huston
Release date: 1st July 2011.
In the aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on 14th April 1865, the Washington government hastily undertakes a military trial of eight individuals believed to be pivotal in the conspiracy to murder the American President and other key members of state during the last days of the American Civil War.
Indicted due to her status as the landlady of the premises where John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators hatched their plan and also by the part undertook by her absent son in those events, the sole female civilian Mary Surratt (Wright) is brought before a military tribunal that refuses to acknowledge the constitutional right of the individual to a civilian trial.
Former Union war hero and lawyer Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) is assigned to defend Surratt as public opinion veers towards the need for swift justice. As the attorney investigates the events surrounding the conspiracy he not only starts to question Surratt’s role in the plot but increasingly protests at the abuse of power shown by the authorities.
Robert Redford has previously used American history to examine his country’s moral compass with the excellent Quiz Show (1994) and his new film seems not only to be a well executed history lesson but a commentary on the role of government in bringing about unity and stability through the use of it’s inherent power, even at the expense of the individual’s rights.
As for the production itself, The Conspirator is beautifully filmed with an attention to the language, costumes and architecture of the period whilst the entire cast are more than adapt at expressing the deep and painful divisions caused by the civil war.
McAvoy and Tom Wilkinson manage to convince with their authentic American accents and McAvoy acts as a focal point to the unfolding events. The actor gives a believable and at times subtle performance of someone initially ill at ease and prejudiced against his own client whilst at odds with the government that he fought for.
Kevin Kline gives a steely and astute portrayal of Edwin Stanton, the War Minister determined to start the unification of the country at any cost, even if part of that plan must include America’s first hanging of a woman on the basis of (supposedly) inconclusive evidence.
Elsewhere, Danny Huston also deserves recognition with his portrayal of prosecutor Joseph Holt, giving a robust and eloquent edge to Holt’s courtroom performances whilst adding a touch of discomfort and complicity to his character away from the limelight.
And Wright portrays Surratt as a distant, sometimes withdrawn individual, resigned to the fact that she will almost certainly hang irrespective of her guilt. Stern and at times uncommunicative the role is given an added dimension by her character’s persistence in withholding evidence to protect her wayward son.
A handsomely filmed historical drama backed by some impressive performances and a moral question about the use of power, The Conspirator is intelligent film making. Recommended.