John Wilkes Boothe shot Abraham Lincoln. Eight others stood trial for that crime, among them the owner of a boarding house, one Mary Surratt. Four would be executed in proceedings that raised uncomfortable questions about justice, vengeance and the rule of law. Sadly, while The Conspirator is a credible and worthy historical drama it labours and lumbers more than it ought.

The cast all deliver solid performances. As Mary, Robin Wright manages a portrayal that is both sympathetic to the character and the audience. James McAvoy ably swings from one form of outrage to another as Frederick Aiken, Mary's lawyer. For all their effort it is a succession of solid turns in smaller roles that makes the film. Standouts include Tom Wilkinson as Aiken's patron, Danny Huston as the prosecutor Joseph Holt, Colm Meaney as tribunal chair General David Hunter, Justin Long as Aiken's best friend and Evan Rachel Wood as Mary's daughter. There's good work from the other conspirators, and there's a tremendous performance from Kevin Kline as Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War.

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Hidden behind Rumsfeldian glasses, Kline excels as the architect of the trial. The deck is sharply stacked against our protagonists, but for all the producers' claims to accuracy it also seems cut to a particular direction.

History is a messy business, aftermath even more so - for all that films like RFK Must Die and One Thousand Pictures can show us there are always other questions, missing answers. More than 140 years after the Lincoln assassination, The Conspirator seems pointed at a more recent event. The parallels with The Global War On Terror are obvious, but feel over-egged.

Robert Redford's direction has its neat moments, but there are odd choices, too. Glaring sunlight and the way the trial is shot may be historically accurate but they feel forced, as do the simplificiations imposed upon events. There is conspiracy aplenty, but heavy-handedness removes any potential for doubt.

It's that lack of shades of grey that most disappoints, because it's easy to see that guilty or not an injustice was done - be it in the name of expediency or vengeance we don't really get the chance to see how readily good intentions can lead in bad directions.

Instead, it's a muddled portrait of a complex event that uses flashback sequences during testimony (as in Oliver Stone's JFK) that eventually resorts to a title card that reads "16 months later" and some text on the screen that explains what happened next. There's a sense that there was a conscious effort to simplify, but the first casualty of that was subtlety and the next was accuracy. Historical accounts of some of the incidents depicted seem far more impressive than those we see, and while it's rare enough to call for more special effects several of the crowd scenes could have been more impressive.

Despite that, it's still pretty good - the cast is genuinely impressive, and there are some brilliant performances from them. There are unremarked upon background notes, such as the unpaved streets and the incomplete Washington Monument that give a real sense of place and time. The increasing discomfort among Aiken's friends as the trial progresses is neatly realised, but there's still a sense that it's another incomplete part of a potentially more affecting tale.

The Conspirator suffers from its reductionism, yet even at just over two hours it feels hurried. For all of the rush to judgement depicted, it could perhaps have done with a larger and more leisurely canvas. As a window on a historical incident with striking ramifications and whose repercussions are still felt today, it manages to balance fact and entertainment, and does an excellent job of reminding us that the driving forces of history are the decisions made by individuals.

Reviewed on: 30 Jun 2011
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The story of Mary Surratt, charged as a co-conspirator after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
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Director: Robert Redford

Writer: James D. Solomon, Gregory Bernstein

Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood, Justin Long, Danny Huston

Year: 2010

Runtime: 122 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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