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'Conspirator' hatches plot to underwhelm audience

By Sean Fabery

Section: Arts

April 29, 2011

Shortly after assassinating President Abraham Lincoln, actor-turned-assassin John Wilkes Booth jumped from the presidential balcony at Ford’s Theater, breaking a leg in the process. Nearly 150 years later, actor-turned-director Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator”—a dramatization of the events surrounding the trial of the lone female implicated in the murder—lands with a similar thud.

In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, the government launches a massive manhunt to track down Booth and those who conspired with him. Booth is found and killed within two weeks, while eight others are imprisoned for aiding in the plot. Among these is Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the owner of the boarding house where the conspirators met.

Surratt is quickly brought to trial but it’s under less than ideal circumstances. Lincoln’s vengeful secretary of war, Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), orders military trials for all involved. Surratt is not allowed to see her defense attorney until the day before her trial begins and they are barred from knowing what witnesses the prosecution will use.

When Surratt’s original attorney leaves the case, lawyer and war veteran Fredrick Aiken (James McAvoy) enters as her reluctant defender. Though he initially deems her irrefutably guilty, he becomes aware of extralegal steps taken by the government: Witnesses have been threatened and evidence has been invented. When Aiken questions this, he falls into disrepute with Washington society, only emboldening him to uncover the truth.

With its focus on extraordinary—and illegal—measures taken in cases of “enemy combatants,” the film clearly draws parallels between Surratt’s predicament and the actions taken at the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. It’s certainly shocking how similar the two situations are; the film succeeds in getting its primary thematic point across. It’s very perceptive and noble, though perhaps it would have been more timely had it premiered five years ago (not that the situation at Guantanamo has been resolved, of course). However, it lacks something in the execution.

“The Conspirator” has the unfortunate distinction of feeling exactly like the ubiquitous historical reenactments presented on virtually every History Channel program. The film’s script, written by James D. Solomon, feels clunky at times and suffers from occasionally leaden dialogue. Redford’s direction, meanwhile, can only be described as by-the-numbers. It’s overly static, especially in the abundant, dialogue-heavy courtroom scenes.

Visually, the film was overly de-saturated and dull. The few visual flourishes employed by its cinematographer felt a little too obvious. For instance, a single ray of light constantly penetrates Surratt’s prison cell, giving her the aura of a saint. It’s a bit much, especially since her innocence has never been established by the historical record.

“The Conspirator” promisingly assembles a large talented cast but few really command the screen.

Wright gives an exceptional performance as the woman of the hour. She imbues Surratt with a quiet dignity; alternatively caged and maternal, she always feels true to the character’s situation. However, the film itself seems to get in the way of her portrayal. The script never allows us full access to Surratt’s mind or heart. This causes our sympathy for her to remain abstract when Redford clearly intended us to feel something deeper.

McAvoy proves fine as her defender, but Aiken is more of an ideal than a genuine character. From the moment he is introduced in the film’s prologue, in which we see Aiken rescuing a fellow soldier on a battlefield, we know that he is a Hero with a capital H. There’s simply not much subtlety to him. Considering the great work McAvoy has done in other films, it’s a shame he didn’t try to get more out of Aiken.

The strength of the supporting cast varies considerably.

Evan Rachel Wood is one of its standouts as Anna, Surratt’s enigmatic daughter. While she’s primarily here to play the role of Reluctant Courtroom Witness, there’s a palpable emotional quality that enters her voice whenever she mentions her mother that feels natural and real.

Others are not quite as subtle. Kevin Kline veers into hamminess as the man leading the charge against Surratt. Considering he initially has noble intentions—to avenge his friend Lincoln’s death—there should be more hints of gray in his portrayal. On a related note, Tom Wilkinson, who portrays Surratt’s initial defense, overdoes the southern accent.

Some felt out of place against the film’s period stylings. Former “Gilmore Girl” Alexis Bledel, portraying Aiken’s love interest Sarah, imbues her character with a host of vocal affectations, but she never feels of the period. Similarly, Justin Long, as Aiken’s best friend and occasional confidante, feels completely out of place. The film’s production staff give him a snazzy, period-appropriate mustache, but it can only accomplish so much on its own. His presentation of the character is overly contemporary, making him look at best like a second-tier Civil War re-enactor in his Union army uniform.

Redford selected a fascinating topic for his film, one that should provide a host of rich historical and thematic material. Unfortunately, he falters in the film’s execution, robbing the film of any real kind of style or substance. “The Conspirator” is fine as a history lesson but it feels decidedly small screen.

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