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Review: 'The Conspirator' An Antiquated Costume Drama With A Political Message

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist April 14, 2011 at 5:40AM

The following is a reprint of our review from TIFF.
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The following is a reprint of our review from TIFF.

Three years after his "Lions For Lambs" directly addressed (with middling results) the current crisis in the Middle East, Robert Redford returns with "The Conspirator." Ostensibly a period piece that investigates the ignored and largely unknown story behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Redford doesn't waste an opportunity to draw parallels with the ongoing war on terror. The result is a long, tedious and only occasionally interesting film that puts politics far ahead of dramatic pull.

What little energy Redford's lugubrious film does have is thanks to James McAvoy. He plays Frederick Aiken, a former Union soldier turned lawyer who is reluctantly thrust by his boss Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) into mounting a defense of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the mother of John Surratt who conspired with John Wilkes Booth and others to murder Lincoln, the vice president and other key members of the administration. Taking the form of a military tribunal with a jury made up government personnel and a commission headed by Secretary of State and Lincoln friend Andrew Stanton (Kevin Kline), the proceedings seem to have Mary Surratt's fate pre-determined.


At first Aiken not only doesn't want the job, he actually believes that Surratt is guilty. But as he investigates he realizes that while he can't be sure of her involvement, the government's thirst for revenge is blinding them to the belief of justice for all upon which the nation is built. If this all sounds familiar it should, but Redford insists on underlining, bolding and goes just short of walking on to the screen himself to point out that yes, indeed, what's going on now is just a case of history repeating himself. The film gives way for multiple scenes of characters, Aiken mostly, talking, arguing and expounding on the importance of the constitution and how stripping away the rights of persons, no matter how grave the charges against them, is a violation of the basic tenets of freedom that America holds true. What is reduced to a montage scene but is far more interesting, is the story of the nation's first major political assassination and the traumatizing effect it had on the people. But it's relegated to the sidelines; what we get instead is an interesting history lesson about the wider conspiracy behind the killing, smothered by a thick syrupy layer of politics on top.

To be sure, Redford lines up a hell of a cast to tell his story. In addition to the standout McAvoy, Wright shines and at times seems to be in a better film as Mary Surrat; Danny Huston does his oily villain schtick well enough as prosecuting attorney Joseph Holt; Colm Meaney shows a bit more range than we're used to as the presiding judge David Hunter, while Stephen Root shows up for what amounts to little more than a cameo role, but a solid one as the shifty, not entirely trustworthy witness John Lloyd, whom the government uses as a key piece of their "evidence" against Mary. But less successful are the film's younger stars, particularly Alexis Bledel as Aiken's wife Sarah Weston and Justin Long (really) as his friend Nicholas Baker. They both seem wholly out of place in the picture, the actors never quite settle into the period setting and the dialogue feels like a foreign language coming from their mouths. Same goes for Evan Rachel Wood as Anna Surratt, Mary's daughter and John's brother.

If the film's approach is marred by its political goals, it does manage to intrigue just enough. With the plot behind Lincoln's assassination only beginning with Booth and spreading out from there, it's an angle on the story that has pretty much been left out of history books and it is fascinating. There is a broader context of the political machinations of the time that begs to be explored, but with Redford's focus solely on the day-to-day progress of the trial, at times the film feels like "Law & Order: Olden Times." But perhaps worse, the entire structure and feel of the film makes it seem like the movie was exhumed from the grave of a filmmaking style we thought died two decades ago. Though beautifully photographed, staged and shot impeccably, there is a strange antiquated vibe that runs through the film; a stilted, mannered quality that might've worked as Oscar bait in 1990 but seems anachronistic now.

"The Conspirator" is handsomely put together and for those who don't mind watching a film that seems like a relic from some distant past of costume dramas rife with leaden dialogue and Important Scenes, we suppose you could do far worse. But in a year — and at a festival — where films like "Black Swan" and "127 Hours" move with verve, passion, excitement and boundless energy and creativity, "The Conspirator" feels as smudgy and antiquated as the vaseline-lined edges of the lens through which it was shot. [C-]

This article is related to: Films, Review, The Conspirator


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