After Abraham Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, the Vice-President, and the Secretary of State. The woman is 42 year old Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who owns the boarding house where actor John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) and others met and planned the simultaneous attacks. Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), 28-year-old war hero and newly accredited lawyer, is recruited by defense attorney Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to defend Surratt before a military tribunal. But as the trial unfolds, Aiken realizes his client may be innocent and that she is being used as bait and hostage to capture the only conspirator to have escaped a massive manhunt - her son, John (Johnny Simmons).
Review by Louise Keller:
A fascinating piece of history gets buried in the telling of this rather turgid courtroom drama that explores issues of principle, justice and protecting the rights of the innocent. The case in point surrounds the assassination of 1865 President Abraham Lincoln and the story of the involvement of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright Penn) who is denied a fair trial 'because someone has to be held accountable'.
James Solomon's screenplay is painstaking in its accurate depiction of the times and the post Civil War conflict between the North and the South, but not being familiar with many aspects of the history, I found much of the storytelling and dialogue confusing. Perhaps American audiences will be more familiar with the details but it is surprising that director Robert Redford, whose work I greatly admire, gets bogged down by the minutiae and much of the film feels like a history lesson. James McAvoy's superlative performance, however, as the lawyer who searches for the truth, is well worth seeing.
After a brief prologue when we see for ourselves why Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) is a war hero, the story jumps two years to the lead up to the President's assassination at the Ford Theatre. I found it hard to get a handle on the sequence of events here and the relevance of each of the characters. One thing though is clear: it is at Mary Surratt's boarding house that the conspirators meet. Intent on burying the case, it is before a military tribunal that the single mother is tried.
It is for political reasons that the patriotic Aiken in his first outing as a lawyer is given the job of defending Mary Surratt. He is none too pleased about the assignment and initially assumes her guilt, like everyone else, convinced of her complicity as he starts investigating. As he becomes confronted by the injustice of the system, we learn he is a man of principle. As the proceedings and the bias are made plain, his attitude changes; suddenly he is fighting for justice. Is the system of justice delivering justice or is bias colouring the case of revenge?
Wright Penn displays great serenity and grace as the stoic Mary Surratt whose only crime appears to be that of a loving mother intent on protecting her now missing son John (Johnny Simmons) who brought the assassination conspirators to her house. Evan Rachel Wood is also excellent as her conflicted daughter Anna, who also shows herself to have high moral principles. There is no shortage of talent in the cast, although I must admit I find Tom Wilkinson less credible in this kind of role (as an attorney with a Southern accent). Kevin Kline is fine, however, as the unbending War Secretary and Danny Huston, Colm Meaney and Justin Long make good contributions.
As the story comes to its inevitable conclusion, I felt frustrated by the journey, not having got as much out of it as I would have liked. There's an irony about the justice system however, that certainly leaves us with plenty to think about.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
As courtroom dramas go, The Conspirator is on a grand scale, not only because it is based on the historical facts of Abraham Lincoln's assassination - the first US Presidential assassination - but because it also touches on the underlying principles of justice not served. Concentrating on the legal and personal dilemmas faced by debuting defence attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), the film draws out the socio-political impact of the trial and shows the bitterness and lasting friction that the Civil War generated.
While the case is of most relevance and interest to a US audience, there are plenty of universal elements that are highly relevant to all audiences. Primary among these is the morally flawed decision to try the conspirators in a military court, not a civil one. This fatally lessened their legal rights. Indeed, a new law was passed in the ensuing year to rule out such trials in the future. America's belief in the rule of law - and its impartial application at all times - was ultimately strengthened as a result of the lesson learnt here.
Although it is clear where the filmmakers' sympathies lie, this doesn't detract from the presentation of the events. James McEvoy is splendid as Frederick Aiken, the young lawyer and war hero who is forced against his will to take on the defence of Mary Surratt (heartbreaking performance by Robin Wright), the landlady at a lodging house where the conspiracy was planned - her son John (Johnny Simmons) very much involved. But was she? Did she know?
Aiken's attitude changed when confronted by the bias against his client - not just because he began to suspect she may have been innocent of the charge, but because the process had been corrupted: it looked to him more like revenge than justice. But there were genuine - even laudable - political reasons for a quick trial and execution, to shut down the festering sore of North South post-war tensions.
Staged like any court room drama, including flashbacks for clearer visual exposition, The Conspirator delivers plenty of tension. Told from Aiken's point of view the film creates an authentic sense of the period, both in physical terms (we even the White House surrounded by large, green fields) and on a human level. Aiken's romance with Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel) is disturbed by the trial, and his other friendships are also rocked as his peers try to make sense of a war hero defending a woman from 'the enemy camp'.
Danny Huston is sonoriously credible as the determined prosecutor and Kevin Kline is powerful as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton - both standing in the way of Aiken's defence of Mary Surratt.
The film is a first in a planned Witness History series from the newly formed The American Film Company, which partly accounts for its attention to detail and sense of veracity. It works on every level as an engaging drama with high stakes.
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CONSPIRATOR, THE (PG)
CAST: Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Justin Long, Danny Huston, James Badge Dale, Colm Meaney, Johnny Simmons, Toby Kebbell
PRODUCER: Robert Redford, Bill Holderman, Greg Shapiro, Robert Stone, Webster Stone
DIRECTOR: Robert Redford
SCRIPT: James D. Solomon
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Newton Thomas Sigel
EDITOR: Craig McKay
MUSIC: Mark Isham
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Kalina Ivanov
RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Rialto
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 28, 2011