Directed by Robert Redford, Written by James Solomon and Gregory Bernstein, 123 minutes, Rated PG-13.
By our guest blogger, Matthew Schimkowitz
Despite director Robert Redford’s best intentions, “The Conspirator” never gains the passion it tries to imbue. Instead, Redford’s story tip-toes from one dingy setting to the next, quietly recounting the war council’s indictment of the team responsible for President Lincoln’s death. These slow turns and soft-spoken performances make for distant characters and result in a factual film that’s hard to care about.
The murder of President Lincoln sent shockwaves through the nation. So, when it came time to punish those responsible, finding a legal team for the accused proved difficult. Proving their guilt was patriotic, but maintaining their innocence was traitorous.
Enter Frederick Akin (James McAvoy), a Civil War hero turned attorney, charged with defending Mary Surratt (Robin Wright-Penn), the mother of a fugitive conspirator. As her innocence becomes apparent, and the trial’s corruption boils to the surface, Akin discovers that the prosecution will come at the cost of a fair trial.
McAvoy’s Akin carries Redford’s film. The actor’s transformation from a dismissive lawyer to a passionate defender of the constitution is the film’s most engaging part. It comes as a sharp contrast to the film’s first half, which, coupled with Wright-Penn’s barely-there Surratt, gives us few reasons to care. It’s not until Akin decides to start caring about Surratt that Redford does, too.
Redford distances his audience from the characters in the first half, focusing more on his impressive production design. His gold lighting schemes and dusty settings look like an old photograph, which set the right tone for the film. The director establishes historical accuracy through these detailed sets, but narratively, this focus is a distraction.
Unlike the gripping style of the inaccurate “JFK,” Redford makes a film that feels like a cheesy History channel dramatization with a budget. He never finds a notable way to tell the story, settling for a typical period piece complete with harshly whispered courtroom drama and a melodramatic score. In this case, historical accuracy slows down the plot until the trial gets underway, playing in opposition to McAvoy’s urgent and complex performance, and thus, detracting from the film’s earnest intentions.
While the film gets points for speaking to history buffs, and doing so with care, everyone else will fight off sleep until the 60-minute mark.