Robert Redford’s The Conspirator postures like an Oscar-winner before the ceremony has even begun. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t get nominated for any golden statuettes.
Directed by: Robert Redford
Written by: James D. Solomon
Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Justin Long, Danny Huston, Evan Rachel Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Alexis Bledel, Kevin Kline
Released: 2010 / Genre: Historical Drama / Country: USA / IMDB
I’m surprised Robert Redford’s The Conspirator didn’t receive any Academy Award nominations given he’s made the film with those shiny golden men clearly on his mind. Grandiose staging for lines such as “Have you ever believed in something far greater than yourself?” and “One bullet killed our beloved president; one bullet but not one man” leave you suspecting Redford saw this great American tragedy as a sure-fire Oscar-contender. But they are too Hollywood glamour for this 19th century set story surrounding the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, when the admittedly well-cast Kevin Kline mutters – “Damn the rebels. Damn them to hell” – with suitable bombast, you begin to think Redford really has lost all restraint.
The film begins on an American Civil War era battlefield where two Union soldiers – James McAvoy’s Frederick Aiken and Justin Long’s Nicolas Baker – lay bleeding, and nearly dead, after an implied battle with the Confederacy. Aiken is the higher ranked but when aid arrives he insists they take his friend first as he is in greater need of medical assistance. Moving forward two years we meet the two men again – they are close friends and Aiken is a newly appointed lawyer. Following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Aiken is given the job of defending the only woman allegedly involved in the plot – Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). Against many detractors, including his close friends, in a post-Civil War Washington, he reluctantly takes on the case even though he believes his client is guilty. But quickly, Aiken uncovers flaws in the evidence against is client, and because he believes the prosecution cannot prove she was involved in the plot beyond reasonable doubt, he builds a strong and spirited defense.
The Conspirator’s slow-burning pace will put off a lot of viewers but the fact it slow-burns to a rather downbeat ending (that most people will know if they look up the facts of the case) leaves it wholly unsatisfying. Redford sets out to make an American film about a great untold American story but there’s too much posturing (exampled by the trite, melodramatic dialogue and Redford’s over-stylised, sun-blasted high contrast photography) so the genuinely interesting core of the drama fails to resonate.
But where Redford’s affection for the story gets in the way of his ability to tell it in an interesting way, he still has a great command of his actors. It helps having talent like James McAvoy, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson and Robin Wright at your disposal but Redford’s knowledge of the craft allows the actors a freedom, as well as an experienced guiding hand, to feel at ease to effectively bring these real people to life. And certainly it is in the performances that the film excels – McAvoy achieves a level of assertiveness, and authenticity, in a demanding role that requires the confidence of an intuitive and knowledgeable lawyer to surface through the youthful exuberance of a young, ex-military man battling his own sense of moral direction. Seasoned performers Tom Wilkinson and Kevin Kline stand out in smaller roles as two warring lawyers. Robin Wright presents the doomed Mary Surratt with dignity and grace but she is hampered somewhat by the one-dimensional nature of her character.
The Conspirator tries too hard to be a message movie that director Redford forgets about the drama. Admittedly, its 19th century set courtroom, and the premise by which Mary Surratt finds herself on trial, offers a glimmer of distinctiveness. But Redford is heavy-handed and episodic in his approach, the dialogue is clunky and the pay-off lacks emotional punch. This might be a story principally set around McAvoy’s Frederick Aiken, the idealistic war hero with a point to prove, but it leaves Wright in his shadow so when the verdict is delivered the audience is too detached and therefore ambivalent to the outcome.
Despite Redford’s unnecessary use of high contrast lighting, presumably as some kind of metaphor, the film’s period setting looks fantastic. Yet, aside from several strong performances and an excellent turn from James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, the film lacks emotional punch. Redford fails to make his courtroom dramatic or his characters interesting and we’re left a film with a relatively short running time (at just under two hours) outstaying its welcome.
The Conspirator is released in the UK on DVD/Blu-ray October 24th. We have five copies of the DVD to giveaway. Click here for details.
Review by Daniel Stephens – See all reviews