Robert Redford's first directorial effort since his 2007 anti-war polemic Lions for Lambs is a striking Civil War courtroom drama not far removed from a film like Bruce Beresford's Breaker Morant. The assassination of President Lincoln calls into question the possible participation of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the mother of a young man who befriended John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices. It was inside the boarding house Surratt owned and operated where Booth and his men planned the attacks on Lincoln. Hot for revenge, the state seeks the death penalty and tries the accused civilians in a Washington, D.C., military tribunal rather than in a civil court.
In yet another wonderfully designed portrayal in a career of memorable performances, James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, a young Union war hero turned attorney.
Aiken is assigned on the day before the trial begins to defend Surratt, whose sought-after son John vanished two week's before the assassination. McAvoy's ice-water American accent divulges the precision of his character's ability to comprehend complexities of the case before him. He is genuinely heroic.
Clear connections between the United States government's modern-day attack on civil liberties and the Constitution are at the heart of the story. Kevin Kline's pernicious Secretary of War Edwin Stanton goes to any lengths to see his personal brand of political expediency exerted over Surratt regardless of a dearth of evidence against her.
Wright soars to dramatic heights in her restrained performance. The effect is reminiscent of Jessica Lange's finest work. Between them, McAvoy and Wright carry the drama to its farthest recesses of innate social consciousness.
Yet The Conspirator misses the mark in several areas. A lack of narrative attention to the circumstances of the planning by Booth and his men nag at the story, and the other accused are set up as props rather than as integral parts of the story. Grade: B-
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