Robert Redford’s last directorial offering was the mauled Lions for Lambs. His latest is being released in the UK in the same week as Transformers 3 and Tom Hanks’ Larry Crowne. Does it deserve to not be drowned out by the big releases?
Abraham Lincoln has been shot. Young lawyer/war hero Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) is recruited by his mentor (Tom Wilkinson) to defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the owner of the boarding house in which John Wilkes Booth and his confederates hatched their plan. Aiken is initially sceptical that Mary could know nothing of the plot, but is horrified by the government’s determination to see her hang.
The Conspirator is nothing if not stagey. From the ripe, portentous dialogue to the inevitable courtroom histrionics its primary concern is delivering the message, and a very worthy message it is. Justice falls by the wayside as the state moves as quickly as possible to put Mary in the ground, led by Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline). The problem is that the rest of the film comes second. There’s no sense of directorial flair from Redford, although he’s never been one for visual fireworks, and the script is awfully clunky.
The cast is full to bursting with superb actors and each of them struggles bravely against the heavy handed script, some with more success than others. McAvoy plays Frederick with typical conviction but Wright’s beatific detachment doesn’t gel with his earnest intensity. Danny Huston (The Constant Gardener) and Kline work hard to give their villains a bit of humanity while enjoying themselves and Wilkinson plays yet another American father-figure. Evan Rachel Wood (The Wrestler) deserves a special mention for her heartfelt performance as Mary’s daughter.
Things move along at a reasonable pace and there is a good story here, while the commitment to historical accuracy is refreshing. It does occasionally come to life, but Aiken’s moral journey and the injustices against Mary Surratt are told in such a way that it falls to the actors to find the life in this too-often dry and airless film.
Its message is important and the cast, especially McAvoy, give it everything but this drama is never more than watchable.