There is good reason why conspiracy theorists have so much fun with the Abraham Lincoln/JFK question (based on some spooky similarities in both men’s presidencies and assassinations) – aside from the kind of spooky facts that would have Oliver Stone exploding with apoplectic outrage – the story is also one overflowing with intrigue. But rather than focus on the events of the assassination, or even at the wider influence Lincoln had as an innovative leader and civil rights exponent, Robert Redford‘s The Conspirator – the first feature from the American Film Company – focuses on a comparatively smaller, but no less important story in Mary Surratt’s trial as a co-conspirator in the plot to assassinate Lincoln.
Surratt (played by Robin Wright) was implicated in the plot after she gave rooms to John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts (including her own son, John), which ultimately lead to her arrest, imprisonment and trial. Hers is an unheralded story, unfashionable in comparison to he know pulled the trigger and left to gather dust on History’s shelves, and is retold here by Redford through the linked story of her young attorney Frederick Aitken (James McAvoy). The heart of the film is Aitken’s journey from prejudiced Union affiliate (he was a serving Captain) who is forced to take her case against his will and judgement, to a position of informed objection to the way Surratt is presented as a scapegoat.
If there is one major problem with the film, it’s that there is no real firm judgement on whether Surratt was guilty or not – the focus of the film makes more of a judgement on Aitken as a character, and it is his redemption from ignorance to awareness that is most important for The Conspirator, rather than whether or not Surratt was innocent. As such the film doesn’t know whether to position her as a villain or as a martyr, hinting at both and never landing on a resolution even after she is executed (that’s no spoiler, since it happened in real life). It may wrestle truth away from historical fact, but it would have at least been more pleasing had she been innocent, offering a narrative piquancy and melancholy that can never quite be realised here, despite Wright’s accomplished performance.
The Conspirator deserves a lot more praise than it got on initial release at the cinema: yes it is slow in parts and even provocatively tentative, but it is intricately crafted, a wonderful example of precision and attention to detail, not only in its research, but also in the way the film was shot. There should also be praise for the cast, who cope manfully with the weight and maturity of the subject matter without too much spectacle or exaggeration – though Colm Meaney is terrible, thanks to his role amounting to little more than a pantomime villain. The same could be said for Kevin Kline, who is ostensibly the main villain of the piece, but he at least does better with the material with Meaney.
McAvoy is good as Aitken, though he does feel slightly young (or at least young acting) for the role, and there is a touch of modernity in his performance that doesn’t quite sit with the character (like, but not anywhere near as bad as Keanu Reeves in Dracula). The rest of the supporting cast including Danny Huston and Eva Rachel Wood is very good, particularly Tom Wilkinson as Reverdy Johnson, and overall, it is a cast chocked full of solid performances from an obviously talented bunch.
There is more at play in The Conspirator than surface concerns – Redford spends a lot of effort drawing some pretty obvious parallels between the political situation immediately surrounding Lincoln’s assassination and current affairs in the USA. This is a blatantly liberal film, though it never distastefully over-states its allegiance with a hammer blow, even if its hard to ignore the messages that Redford clearly wants us to take away.
I really want Robert Redford to be an excellent director, so I can forgive the problems with Lions for Lambs, and the over quaintness of The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Horse Whisperer, in favour of the general strengths of Quiz Show, A River Runs Through It and Ordinary People, and there is definitely enough in The Conspirator to confirm his skill. Across all of his films, even those I wouldn’t class as particularly worthy of note, Redford has continued to show a commitment to aesthetics and shot composition that confirms his status as a film fan as well as a film-maker. He is obviously well-versed in the vernacular of film visuals, and as such brings a quality of image, and an intangible substance to his shots that feels authentic. Redford makes elegant films, without too much pomp and circumstance, but which will last the test of time beyond the frivolous and fickle fancies of the critics who have castigated The Conspirator without due attention.
Very good, both in visuals and audio. The film has a sepia-toned edge, thanks to the way it was shot, giving the image an aged quality, as well as creating a pronounced contrast in well-lit and dark sections of the screen – at times I was put in mind of the artist Carvaggio and his process of Chiaroscuro, so pronounced is the use of light and dark as textures. Texture and detail suffers in places, thanks to the low-lighting, but they shine well in properly lit scenes, particularly in facial detail, and oddly, in the stark interior textures of Surratt’s prison. Overall, it is a wonderful looking transfer, and one which values manufactured texture and a visual quality over realism.
The audio is clean and crisp, and bombastic in places, including the Civil War scenes, with a pleasantly undemanding soundtrack that sits well behind the action and rises perfectly when called upon to add weight to scenes.
Lots for the history fans, with a particularly fine featurette looking at the plot to kill Lincoln, and a number of mini-features under the banner Witness History that offer some intrigue and insight into the case of Mary Surratt. there’s also a feature commentary with Robert Redford, but it isn’t one of the best I’ve ever heard – there are some interesting moments admittedly, but there are also long silences, which sort of defeats the object of the commentary.
- Feature commentary by Director Robert Redford
- The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Lincoln (1:06:03 mins)
- The American Film Company (00:51 mins)
- The Making of The Conspirator (10:04 mins)
- Theatrical Trailer
- TV Spots
- Photo Gallery
- Witness History: Introduction (2:49 mins)
- Witness History: The Conspiracy (4:37 mins)
- Witness History: Production Design (3:58 mins)
- Witness History: Mary Surratt’s Catholicism (2:17 mins)
- Witness History: Costume Design (5:19 mins)
- Witness History: Military Trial (3:55 mins)
- Witness History: Props and Special Effects (4:05 mins)
- Witness History: Frederick Aiken – Defense Lawyer (4:33 mins)
- Witness History: Mary Surratt: Guilty or Innocent (5:03 mins)
- Witness History: Sentence and Execution (4:32 mins)
This article was first posted on October 24, 2011