American justice

The Conspirator3SR: Attention to detail undercuts the drama in a period piece that demands the truth.

Starring James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Tom wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood.

Screenplay by James Solomon and Gregory Bernstein.

Directed by Robert Redford.

122 minutes. Rated M for violence.


In Hollywood, history is a crapshoot where any shred of reality or fact can be tossed to the side in the dramatic scrabble for the audience’s emotions.

If they’re not sobbing in the seats, you’re not doing it right.

It is interesting then, that director Robert Redford chose to stick to the historical facts in his post civil war tale, The Conspirator, even at the expense any real drama.

The Conspirator tells the tale of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), arrested and tried by military court for her supposed part –  “keeping the nest which hatched the egg” – in the plot to kill Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and Vice President Andrew Johnson in 1865.

The plot involved her son, who has escaped capture, and Surratt will stand trial in his stead whatever her part in the plot.

She is unwillingly defended by young lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a 28-year-old civil war hero whose belief in the North is equalled only by his belief in justice.

As Aiken’s defence of Surratt is repeatedly – and unethically – thwarted by officials and the court itself, and as he comes to respect the beatific Surratt, his disillusionment with the government he fought and nearly died for grows.

The conclusion is inevitably brutal.  There was neither liberty, nor justice and the end of Mary Surratt’s hanging rope. Redford does not shy away from showing that in gritty, if sepia toned, detail.

But the journey to the gallows Redford takes us on never attains the dramatic heights this kind of period-drama would normally reach.  It ends up seeming like something from the History Channel, albeit with massive production values and a cracking cast.

That’s because real history is seldom prone to Hollywood histrionics or emotional manipulation.

Redford chooses instead to let the pitch perfect performances of a vulnerable and determined McAvoy and a luminous Wright provide us with a connection to the story.

Wright, clad in funereal black and without make up – a brave choice for a woman her age in Hollywood – exudes an almost religious calm and acceptance of her fate. It isn’t hard to believe stalwart Aiken could come to love her.

McAvoy deftly portrays Aiken’s slide from aversion to admiration for Wright’s saintly mother figure, as well as the mounting horror, desperation and determination of a man who wants justice where none can be had.

In the end it’s our investment in the truth – historical or not – of their relationship rather than the story, which ultimately delivers the real emotional punch of the film.

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