Directed by Robert Redford
Starring James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Danny Huston
Between grandstanding monologues, swelling music and conspicuous cinematography, “The Conspirator,” set in the days following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, aspires to be an opus of artistic, ethical and narrative integrity. I’d call it an opus lite, at most, but at least the story is nimble and provoking, offering the not-insignificant satisfaction of a darn good airport book.
The film follows the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the only woman charged as a conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination — she owned the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices (including her son) hatched their plot. From the outset, her prospects are grim: The jury is a military tribunal comprised of Union members (she’s a Confederate), and the prosecutor is hell-bent on vengeance — as is the mourning public.
Enter lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a former Union army captain assigned to defend her. As a Union soldier, he can’t stomach the idea of being on Surratt’s side. However, when the prosecution begins to undermine the law with devious, unconstitutional tactics, Aiken’s badass civil lawyer instincts kick in, even if it means becoming a pariah.
“The Conspirator” is at its best during the courtroom scenes, especially when McAvoy hits his stride as the outcast driven by moral righteousness. (As we’ve seen in “The Last King of Scotland” and “The Last Station,” McAvoy has a knack for playing morally righteous characters.) Courtroom drama aside, though, “The Conspirator” suffers from awkward edits and waves of mundane dialogue. Then there’s the lighting: So many scenes are awash in sunlight and soft glow. It’s meant to give the film a Vermeer finish, but is mostly just distracting.
Flaws and all, “The Conspirator” is still a compelling story that brings to life a brief but consequential anecdote from American history. That’s more than can be said for most films at the multiplex right now.