The Conspirator

4 May

Title: The Conspirator
Year: 
2011
Director: 
Robert Redford
Writer: James D. Solomon, based on a story by himself and Gregory Bernstein
Starring: 
James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Justin Long, Evan Rachel Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Alexis Bledel, Kevin Kline, Jonathan Groff, Norman Reedus
MPAA Rating: 
PG-13, some violent content
Runtime: 
122 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
7.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 
54%

I was fully prepared to go gaga over The Conspirator. You see, I love historical dramas when they’re well done, and this one, telling the story of the conspiracy behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, focusing on Mary Surratt, the one female conspirator and the first woman to be executed in U.S. history, had all the signs that it was extremely well done. First and foremost it was directed by Robert Redford, who’s done Ordinary People and Quiz Show so we know he can direct, not to mention he’s kind of awesome, and the cast is just a dream come true: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Justin Long, Evan Rachel Wood, Tim Wilkinson, Alexis Bledel, Kevin Kline, Jonathan Groff, Norman Reedus. When you list the 9 main castmembers of a film and you have such a deep and talented roster you have to expect greatness.

And while The Conspirator is indeed undeniably good, I don’t think it’s really great. Part of it reminds me of Lions for Lambs, the last film Mr. Redford directed back in 2007 and in which he starred himself alongside Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep, that film was okay but it just lagged behind and was way too patient for its own good. The Conspirator is actually a better film than Lions for Lambs ever was, but it  does suffer from the same problem, Mr. Redford takes way too much time in his approach to the story, sulking in every detail and extending scenes that do showcase some pretty good acting, but that make the film much much slower than it should have been.

You get the sense, like many reviews have pointed out, that The Conspirator had a feeling of working much better like a theater production, and a pretty damn amazing one at that, than as a feature film. Just pretty patient with itself, delivering terrific setpieces one after the other, but not with the energy necessary for them to flow into one another in a way that would pack a relentless punch to us moviegoers and elevate the film from being quite good to be something extraordinary. However, you do have to just give it to everyone involved here just for the fact that they made this movie. In a movie world full of explosions and superheroes and shiny vampires it’s not often we see a film dare to be patient with itself, dare to feel just as much as a history lesson as it feels like a historical drama. This is a rare luxury nowadays, and we ought to appreciate it.

Not to mention that every performance here is just outstanding. Robin Wright is especially splendid as Mary Surratt, the civilian that was tried in a military court, something that denied her the jury of peers that the Constitution assures. She owned the house in Washington where the plotters met, brought there by Mary’s son who fled before being charged, but she was named as a co-conspirator, and charged as such. And she was charged swiftly enough, with Kevin Kline’s character, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, wanting to use her as an example of justice being done to soothe the enraged nation. And then the other key player other than Mary here is played by James McAvoy, who portrays Frederik Aiken, the defense attorney who gets the controversial case.

These two people are just impeccable here, Mr. McAvoy plays the young man who’s forced to take the case by Tom Wilkinson’s character, his superior who initially had to handle it but who obviously wanted nothing to do with it. And Frederik doesn’t want anything to do with it either, not only does he think Mary is guilty, but Mary is totally uncooperative, welcoming any fate she may get so long as they don’t ever get to her son, but that’s when Frederik stars thinking that maybe she’s not as guilty as they’re making her out to be, and as she’s letting herself be painted as such just to defend her son.

These two are just phenomenal actors, Ms. Wright plays Mary Surratt to perfection, her character is one that’s totally fine with being thought of as guilty and the restraint shown by Ms. Wright in her performance shows just that. It would have been easy for her and Mr. Redford to paint Mary in a light in which she was seen as a victim by us, as some sort of hero, and thus more commercially viable in a film. And yet by depicting her as just totally withdrawn they leave it up to us to form our own opinions by following the story closely. Which is why it’s so great that this story is so thoughtful and researched and slowly paced, it helps to really get immersed in the history.

But that main asset to The Conspirator is also its weakness. People will most likely go to this film thinking it will be a pretty awesome courtroom drama and a pretty awesome characterization of Mary Surrett and her valiant story, but that’s not what they’ll get. They’ll get a history lesson told by a director who makes some pretty smart decisions on how to tell this story aided by a tremendous bunch of actors that do wonders telling this story, and as amazing as that was I still feel The Conspirator lacked some excitement, just some spark to really make it stand out. But still, it had a lot of history that was really nicely explained, a lot of pretty good dialogue and a story not about whether a woman was guilty or not, but about how our Constitution was violated, and that’s something that will still resonate nowadays.

Grade: B

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