Robert Redford's The Conspirator is a historical courtroom drama centering on Mary Suratt (Robin Wright), the sole woman charged in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Of the eight individuals charged, there are serious questions surrounding Surratt; her reluctant defense attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) slowly comes to realize he is fighting a military tribunal that already views her as guilty. Redford, working with a screenplay by James Solomon, can’t seem to light a fire under this historical footnote. At just over two hours, the story isn’t given enough dramatic weight to justify its length.
The American Film Company, which was involved in producing the film, prides itself on presenting historically accurate versions of real life stories. While commendable, the stories they choose to tell must be compelling to work as movies. The issue of Mary Surratt’s involvement, and circumstances surrounding her missing son, provide for a rather threadbare plot. The film works better as a character study of Aiken and Surratt,thanks to strong performances by McAvoy and Wright. McAvoy plays the Civil War hero Aiken as a young man coming to terms with his own conflicted feelings. Wright delivers positively searing work as Surratt, adamant in her denial of guilt.
The supporting cast turns in mostly workmanlike performances, despite the presence of Kevin Kline as Edwin Stanton (Lincoln’s Secretary of War) and Tom Wilkinson as Reverdy Johnson (a Senator who assigns Aiken the task of defending Surratt). Their underwritten characters don’t make much of an impression. In his commentary, Redford characterizes The Conspirator as a lesser known story within a larger known story. That much is true, but it doesn’t mean that it justifies a two hour exploration. It’s a noble effort by all involved, but never really connects on an emotional level.
The Conspirator looks excellent on Blu-ray, with an attractive 1080p high definition image. The color scheme of the film was intentionally bland, so don’t expect anything dazzling in that department. Fine detail is strong, with every fold in the fabric of the period costumes registering clearly. Even with the frequent bright daylight casting an almost soft-focus look over the film, actor’s faces and other details remain clear. Darker scenes, such as underlit courtrooms, do result in occasional little black crush. It’s not a serious problem in this solid visual presentation.