I found Robert Redford’s The Conspirator to be haunting and effective – far from the history lesson disguised as a movie that I’d been reading about since it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year. As Mary Surratt, the woman accused of conspiring in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Robin Wright is restrained and enigmatic, reconciled from the start to the fact that she will be railroaded instead of fairly tried in court. And James McAvoy is amazingly good – fierce and thoughtful – as her lawyer, a former Union solider who at first resists defending her. They are vibrantly living characters.
Redford, and a team that visually creates a blue-shadowed, moody eloquence, offers a film full of emotion and ambiguity. And where some films lose their political relevance by the time they land in theaters, The Conspirator has become timelier than ever, arriving just after the Obama administration announced that terror suspects from Guantanamo will be tried in military rather than civilian courts – just as Mary Surratt was.
I wish James Solomon’s script were less didactic; there’s no getting away from some clunky lines, most of them handed to poor Tom Wilkinson as a high-minded lawyer who has to say things like, “Mary Surratt is entitled to a defense so I shall defend her.” But I recommend The Conspirator as a beautifully made and acted experience. Contrary to what many critics think (you can find the reviews that go Splat! at Rotten Tomatoes), this elegant film is nothing like being in school.
Take a look at the trailer, which gives a fair sense of what to expect: