There's no lack of media hoopla surrounding the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, proving that Americans are still very interested in the first great test of our country's unity. But only the most hardcore history nerds could possibly find something to love in The Conspirator, and even then they'd be better off reading a non-fiction book about the events depicted. Telling the true story of Mary Surratt, the only woman tried in the massive plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, the Robert Redford-directed The Conspirator is musty and stagy in a way that guarantees it will bore generations of high school students on movie day.
It's exactly the movie you expect to yawn through when you see familiar, talented actors like James McAvoy and Tom Wilkinson slap on waistcoats and fluffy sideburns, spouting stilted, on-the-nose dialogue and laying out great tracts of exposition. Redford generally tells but doesn't show the world of Washington D.C. in April 1865, weeks before the bloody war would finally come to an end. McAvoy stars as Frederick Aiken, a Union soldier and attorney assigned by Senator Reverdy Johnson (Wilkinson) to defend Surratt (Robin Wright), whose son is on the run after being charged with conspiring to kill President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward, who survived the attack. Surratt owned the boarding house where the convicted conspirators met, but the question remains how much she actually knew of the plot. Aiken is rightly horrified to defend an enemy Confederate sympathizer, but in the manner of all square-jawed heroes in dull period epics, soon sucks it up and steps into the breach of a court case he's almost guaranteed to lose.
Any number of famous faces swirl through the oak-paneled courtrooms and upholstered sitting rooms that make up The Conspirator's stifling atmosphere. Evan Rachel Wood is fairly memorable as Surratt's heartbroken daughter, and though I couldn't exactly tell you how Kevin Kline fits into the story as a villain, he's always able to breathe life into his handful of scenes. McAvoy, always an earnest and wide-open presence, brings a humanity that occasionally (but not always) makes Aiken more than a rhetoric-spouting machine. Faring less well are Alexis Bledel and Justin Long, in roles both underwritten and utterly wrong for the actors, and even though Robin Wright is the film's central victim and great martyr, she and the character never make an impact on the Big Ideas that are attached to Surratt's story. Wright is deliberately deglamorized, in harsh black dresses and looking all of her 44 years, but she and Redford both equate Surratt's stubborn silence with strength of character, when in fact it creates a passive, inscrutable black hole of a character at the center of an already messy story.
Over the course of The Conspirator's generous two-hour running time it's impossible not to think of what could have been. If only Redford had chosen to properly develop the grudging respect that grows between Aiken and Surratt, or truly convey the tension and fears of a slowly reuniting the country, or even gone for any emotion beyond "noble sorrow." Instead every scene in The Conspirator seems ready to be stamped on the back of a coin, already so convinced of its own importance there's nothing for the audience to add or discover for themselves. It's a shame when any historical drama gets drowned out by its own pretension, but doubly so for the story of Surratt, a minor historical figure but a woman whose story really does echo sharply in our current time of war. It's not that Redford doesn't see this, but that he leans on it so hard that he suffocates his movie in the process.
Staff Writer at CinemaBlend
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