America on Trial

The Conspirator ★★★★
(USA, 122 min.)
Dir: Robert Redford; Writ: James D. Solomon & Gregory Bernstein (story)
Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Danny Houston, and Alexis Bledel.
One need not be a history buff to appreciate The Conspirator. With very little set-up prior to the main action, Robert Redford throws us into Civil War America as the conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln prepare for battle. As the guilty parties make their way to their victims, and the narrative cuts back and forth between them, the viewer is put in a state of disorientation. When the assassination occurs and it’s difficult to decipher who are the key players in The Conspirator, the film effectively replicates the chaos and confusion that must have been rampant in wartime America.

Once things begin to settle, America’s looking for someone to blame. Leading the witch hunt is Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), the US Secretary of War. Stanton’s quest for visible justice soon extends to the arrest of one Mary Surratt (played by Robin Wright), the owner/proprietor of the boarding house at which Lincoln’s assassins were alleged to have conspired.

Mary is hauled off and unseen in the early scenes of the film. In the meantime, the case against her (or lack thereof) falls into the hands of Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). Mary’s trial is Aiken’s first case since joining the bar after fighting for the Union during the Civil War. (Mary Surratt and the other conspirators are Confederates.) Aiken himself wants to see someone go down for Lincoln’s death, and he’s just as indifferent to Mary as her prosecutors are. However, as Aiken goes through the motions of defending Mary, he begins to see the weaknesses of the prosecution’s case. As he digs further into Mary’s life, it becomes apparent that the greater conspiracy is going on in the courtroom.

Unfortunately for Aiken, Mary hardly says a word. This is mostly because her son, John, is still being sought by the authorities. As Mary, Wright gives a strong stoic performance. Her resistance to let Mary’s emotions rise to the surface creates a marvellous guessing game about her innocence: like Aiken, the audience is always left in the dark. In fact, The Conspirator greatly emphasizes the uncertainty of the case (and times) through its truly stunning cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel. Sigel masterfully orchestrates the light and shadows of the film, thus ensuring that the truth of Mary’s story is always obscured. Other production values, such as the meticulously detailed costumes and set design, are also top notch.

The courtroom proceedings, however, occasionally fall victim to the over-the-top hamminess typical of most legal dramas. Holding everything together, though, is McAvoy’s unwavering performance as the young lawyer in search of the truth. Like Wright, McAvoy’s probably gives his best work to date in The Conspirator.
Partly due to the spectacular work from McAvoy and Wright (and Evan Rachel Wood as Mary Surratt’s daughter Anna), the final act of The Conspirator is especially compelling. As things seem to fall in place in terms of exonerating Mary, the collusion between the Union politicos becomes criminal. Redford and Solomon unfold the tragic tale with dexterous skill, and the final verdict of The Conspirator is an ominous,  condemnation of a system at one of its darkest hours, and a highly relevant one, too, if read as an allegory for the dealings of recent administrations in a time when questions of due process are still at the fore. Gripping, masterly-crafted, and timely, The Conspirator is not to be missed.

The Conspirator opens in theatres April 2011.