Robert Redford’s period courtroom drama is a bit of a slow burner. The Conspirator is sufficiently engaging, but lacks a strong sense of tension when it is really needed.
On 14th April 1865, president Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. In the wake of this shocking event, seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to murder the president, vice-president and the secretary of state. Frederick Aitken, a Union war veteran and rookie lawyer is appointed to represent Mary Surratt, who faces the death penalty if found guilty…
The beginning of The Conspirator works incredibly well to set up the rest of the film. Particularly for viewers not familiar with all the details of the Lincoln assassination, this section conveys the chaos of the incident, as well as situating protagonist Aitken in the centre of the action.
James Solomon’s screenplay exhibits the unfolding drama from the viewpoint of Aitken. Giving some distance between the accused and her condemners, Aitken appears level-headed and a lonely voice of reason. Moreover, considering he was a Union soldier, Aitken is perfectly placed to initially hold contempt for Mary Surratt. Aitken’s struggle to uphold the oath he took to defend his client is palpable. As much as the film is about the case, it is also about Aitken’s beliefs and personal journey.
What makes The Conspirator interesting is the lack of exploration into Mary’s alleged crimes. Although these are documented in the court scenes, the film never sways too far in suggesting her level of guilt. The concentration is placed on the legal proceedings instead. Whilst the film comments on this, it leaves open questions about the extent of Mary’s involvement. This exhibits a maturity missing from many historical or courtroom dramas. Given that the facts of her situation will never truly be known, the film takes the wise option of not implying whether she is guilty or not.
Parallels between the events of the film and recent post 9/11 incidents are unmistakable. The hooded prisoners are just one of the visual indicators of this. Elsewhere, there is resonance in the words of Edwin Stanton, when discussing the aftermath of Lincoln’s death. There is also a reference to the Inquisition, with The Conspirator suggesting that these ‘witch trials’ replicate through history.
James McAvoy offers a decent performance as Aitken overall, although he sometimes fails to convey the gravity of the situation. Robin Wright is controlled as Mary Surratt, while Kevin Kline’s Edwin Stanton is unmoving in his determination. Tom Wilkinson is great as Reverdy Johnson, providing reasoned opposition to others in power.
The Conspirator deals with the facts in a balanced manner for the most part, and is an interesting watch because of this. It is just a shame that the film fails to provide the requisite tension in pivotal scenes.