Rest assured that Robert Redford’s latest effort, The Conspirator, is unlikely to light up the box office, what with its methodical pacing and tendency to be quietly compelling rather than dramatically grandiose. It is, however, one of the year’s more intriguing period works thus far; gliding on a spectacular cast and a screenplay packed with thoughtful ideas that still remain relevant today, patient viewers are sure to be richly rewarded.
Beginning with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at the hands of John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbel), The Conspirator then diverges to become less about Lincoln’s demise and trains its focus upon the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). An apparent conspirator alongside her son, John (Johnny Simmons), it soon becomes clear that the prosecution is building a heavily biased case against her, both in order to restore the country’s confidence after the death of their leader, and more disturbingly, to try and bring her son, who is in hiding, to justice. Her counsel, young Union war hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), initially believes her to be guilty, yet as the corrupt case continue to build, he is forced to abandon his prejudices and do what is right.
It becomes clear very quickly that The Conspirator is not going to be a film for everyone; though it begins with a meticulous depiction of Lincoln’s murder, Redford is less keen on scenes of histrionic grandstanding and instead endeavours to tells a composed – though no less engrossing – tale of grand injustice at a time of great national unrest. An actor’s film for sure, the greatest rewards are reaped simply from watching an incredibly distinguished cast chewing though a smart script with passionate vigour; McAvoy rules the roost as Aiken, filling out a suit nicely and, with a flourishing beard in tow, evoking a more mature air than the majority of his roles to date. As McAvoy features in virtually every one of the film’s scenes, he gets more than a chance to shine, and his dedication to the role is unmistakable.
Other key dramatic roles are veritable slam dunks; Redford manages the staggering task of making Robin Wright look plain as the put-upon Surratt, encompassing the legal miscarriage with a pronounced humanism, and particularly in the film’s final moments, pushing the emotional buttons just right. Supporting roles rely on the vast talents of actors such as Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Danny Huston, Evan Rachel Wood, Colm Meaney, James Badge Dale and Stephen Root, while Redford also makes a few bold casting choices, giving Justin Long and Alexis Bledel solid chances to prove themselves in the dramatic arena, and they – especially Long – mostly deliver.
Redford shows himself in no hurry to rush through Surratt’s story here – a respectful approach, indeed – yet each scene slowly reveals another facet of the repugnant case built against her. Though this drip-fed approach is likely to test the patience of many, its dissection of the potential for the legal system to go awry is utterly transfixing, and still absolutely relevant today. Particularly interesting is the film’s regard for the philosophy of law and the nature of justice; the devastating trade-off is the broken spirit of a wounded country against that of a woman who, at most, was only vaguely aware of her son’s actions. Prosecutors, eager to avenge their leader’s death, blinded by patriotism, seem to lose sight of the human factor, and the film argues very successfully – especially with its closing information – that Surratt was a veritable scapegoat.
With its dense examination of legal philosophy, it’s probably going to interest law graduates more than anyone else, but for the patient viewer, The Conspirator is a treat of performance and benefits from Robert Redford’s typically stately direction.
The Conspirator is out now in the U.K.