By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin April 15, 2011 at 4:00AM
There’s nothing more frustrating than wanting a movie to be great and having to admit that it falls short. At one point during The Conspirator I found myself willing it to be more exciting and dynamic, to no avail. It isn’t bad, but it never scales the heights of greatness its story promises and demands.
If nothing else, it is worth seeing for James McAvoy’s persuasive performance as a Union captain who is handed the thankless task of defending a woman (Robin Wright) whose son conspired with John Wilkes Booth. McAvoy’s quiet strength and conviction elevate every scene he’s in, even when he’s sharing the screen with such—
—formidable actors as Kevin Kline and Tom Wilkinson. (What’s more, his American accent is flawless.)
The screenplay, by James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein, reminds us that history always has lessons to impart that have resonance today. When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, members of his cabinet were willing to forego basic laws of justice for the “greater good” of the country, which was still suffering the effects of the Civil War. McAvoy plays Frederik Aiken, whose mentor—a distinguished son of the South—insists that he is the only one who can guarantee that Mary Suratt receives a fair trial and isn’t condemned without due process. Clearly, it is this conflict that attracted Robert Redford to the project as director, and while his film is well-mounted and well-cast, it lacks urgency and dramatic impact.
Robin Wright’s character, Mary Suratt, is underwritten, robbing the actress of a chance to present us a multi-dimensional performance. Others in the cast, including Danny Huston, Colm Meaney, Evan Rachel Wood, Alexis Bledel, and Justin Long, do their best, but only McAvoy makes an indelible impression.
The Conspirator is the initial release from The American Film Company, which is dedicated to presenting historical subject matter. I don’t doubt the founders’ good intentions, but I sincerely hope their subsequent movies are more successful than this middling effort.