Monday 11 December 2017

Film Review: The Conspirator * * *

(12A, general release)

Wright and
McAvoy in The Conspirator
Wright and McAvoy in The Conspirator
Wright and McAvoy in The Conspirator

Robert Redford's handsome, but stilted, historical drama The Conspirator starts as the American Civil War ends, and Abe Lincoln is breathing a well-earned sigh of relief when his drama-loving wife Mary suggests a trip to Ford's Theatre.

We all know what happened next, and Lincoln himself does not figure much in Redford's film: it's the aftermath of the assassination he and his screenwriter James D Solomon are interested in, when America's rush to justice apparently detoured into revenge.

Former army captain and Civil War hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is happily settling back into civilian life and a legal practice when he is summoned to the offices of US Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).

By this stage, Lincoln's assassin, the ham actor John Wilkes Booth, had been hunted down and killed (good news for democracy and the theatre), but a group of conspirators have also been arrested, including a middle-aged boarding house owner called Mary Surratt (Robin Wright).

Mary is the mother of one of the conspirators, who are known to have held meetings at her Washington boarding house. But while the authorities lazily assume she's guilty, Reverdy Johnson tells Aiken that she may not be and asks him to defend her.

Aiken is initially less than enthusiastic. Surratt is not only Southern but a Catholic, making her doubly suspicious. But when Aiken goes to a military jail to meet her, he begins to have serious doubts about her guilt.

Once it has established its necessarily elaborate scenario, The Conspirator turns into a pretty conventional courtroom drama -- but there's a subtext. Although initially as keen on bloody retribution as everyone else, Aiken began to realise that Surratt and the conspirators would never get a fair trial.

Their case was heard by a military tribunal, not a civil court, and throughout the lengthy proceedings the prisoners were kept in barbaric conditions, hooded and unwashed.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it, and Redford draws regular and not especially subtle comparisons between America's reaction to the Lincoln emergency and a certain foreign attack in 2001.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, played with melodramatic relish by Kevin Kline, is the villain of the piece here, aided by his government prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), whose every oily appearance might as well be accompanied by a chorus of boos.

The US Constitution is the embattled hero; Aiken its representative on Earth. But Redford's scenario is so black and white that he ends up sanctifying the old South, and though their 'cause' is mentioned several times, no one has the bad manners to point out that that cause was actually slavery.

It's a pity the film is so leaden and heavy-handed, because Surratt's is a fascinating story, and the abandonment of the Constitution where she was concerned marked a turning point in US history and set an ugly precedent.

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