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Movie Review: The Conspirator (2011) – Redford Goes Indie

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Redford is back and touting his new historical gem The Conspiratorthe subject is none other than the murder of a beloved American president: Abraham Lincoln. Redford has carefully crafted a film about the drama surrounding the trial of Lincoln conspirators. The twist:  a female conspirator whose story rarely gets the Hollywood treatment. Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) owns the boarding house where John Wilkes Boothe makes his plan to kill Lincoln and other elected officials. We know that Wllkes had help.

Robert Redford‘s contribution to independent cinema will probably be as important, if not more, than his acting and directing career combined.  His recasting of indie cinema is first order—making the dreams of Oscar gold and online buzz possible for nascent directors and actors with annual Sundance film festivals.

It is ironic after a long silence, since his last film Lions For Lambs , that when an A-list star like Robert Redford seeks investment capital from Hollywood the big studios say no thanks. So, my favorite actor ends up in the indie line!  But thus far, Redford hasn’t been in line as a favorite director after his failure to impress with his last film; a film wherein nearly all critics agree with me, that he killed those lambs with a veritable talk-fest. Thankfully, his new film is sharper, more interesting and less of a political agenda ploy.

The Conspirator opens with the enacted Lincoln assassination and it is as sad as ever.  We are drawn immediately into the drama and what is to come. Boothe is killed before he can talk—shot dead inside a burning barn. The remaining conspirators are tracked down and put on military trial.  Attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy ) protests the rush to judgment and notes the lack of a jury and trial by peers.That brings us to the real heart of this film:  military trials for U.S. citizens in America. They fly in the face of the Constitution. And at the end of the film we read that this travesty has been rectified and U.S. citizens are henceforth guaranteed a trial by their peers.

Attorney Aiken is appointed to represent Mary Surratt and believes he can set her free with the help of her daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) for whom he might be developing feelings. He visits the Surratt house for discovery and finds little, save a photo of John Wilkes Boothe, actor turned killer, bought by Anna. Why did she keep the photo after her brother John (Johnny Simmons) warns her not to? That bit of discovery is the extent of the less-known facts shared with the audience.The men are tried separately and found guilty. Mary’s life and that of her son John hang in the balance. Three of the men hang together in the end. 

The film was well researched and based on historical events, which I don’t have a problem with. However, once again the emphasis causes this film’s emptiness and it falls below threshold of its promise. Not because it was made on a budget of only 16 million dollars but because if it were so well researched then why don’t we get at least a peek into the minds of the conspirators and what they were up to at the Surratt boarding house?

Redford’s tightlipped about these clandestine meetings, in effect, putting the actors on a short leash. I don’t think money is the reason however, but for want of a better script. The directing is wonderful; the script, not so much.

I don’t know how much further McAvoy as Frederick Aiken could carry this entire film! But he does a remarkable job. That would not have been a problem had the director or the script shifted the emphasis to the goings-on with Mary Surratt as conspirator. Was she or wasn’t she? Robin Wright does an admirable, adequate job as Mary. It’s not her fault that she was written out of the script.

I think the emotional responsibility could have been shouldered more equitably among the main characters. We are introduced to Mary, but hardly get to know her therefore we don’t really care about her fate–there’s the real travesty of justice.

When I compare the content and subject matter to similar films, what makes the other films edgier and packed with emotional wallop, is the time and energy put into historical events, commonly shared emotions and motives among characters in the film, not their attorneys. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good, solid film with good direction but there are cracks in the facet of this Mount Rushmore icon.

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