Review: The Conspirator


Directed by: Robert Redford
Written by:James D. Solomon, Gregory Bernstein
Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood, Justin Long, Danny Huston, Colm Meaney, Alexis Bledel
Released: July 28, 2011
Grade: A-

Who was Mary Surratt?  It’s a question I didn’t know the answer to beforehand.  For those similar minded people unfamiliar with her small place in history, Mary (played in the film by Robin Wright) was charged in 1865 for abetting, aiding, concealing, counselling and harbouring (it’s a long list) those responsible for the murder of President Abraham Lincoln.

Mary proclaimed her innocence but the odds were clearly stacked against her.  For starters, the Secretary Of War, Edwin Stanton (Kline), was doing everything possible to ensure a speedy trial.  He arranged for the matter to be heard in front of a military tribunal (as opposed to a civilian court) and was suspected of manipulating the testimony of witnesses to help secure a guilty verdict.

Further, Mary had been appointed an inexperienced defence lawyer by the name of Frederick Aiken (McAvoy).  He was reluctant to take the role and knew it was a “poisoned chalice”.  If he managed to win the case, he would be known as the guy who let one of Lincoln’s murderers go free.  If he lost the case, it would damage his professional reputation.

The first half hour feels too much like a history lesson but from thereon in, The Conspirator is a compelling drama.  I’m a sucker for courtroom dramas and so perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it so much.  The story is set 150 years ago but it’s just as relevant in today’s age.  When it comes to high profile legal cases, it’s not easy to get a fair trial given that so many have formed an opinion.

Director Robert Redford (Ordinary People, Quiz Show) has pulled together one of the strongest casts of the year.  James McAvoy, Robin Wright and Tom Wilkinson all deliver passionate performances.  Kevin Kline is also great in is villainous role.  I was a little disappointed by some of the supporting players however.  I had trouble picturing the likes of Justin Long, Alexis Bledel and Stephen Root in their respective roles.

The Conspirator is the first feature film to have been made by The American Film Company.  The organisation was founded in 2008 by Joe Ricketts with the goal of bringing true stories about America’s past to the big screen.  Based on this effort, I look forward to their next production.