“The Conspirator” is a sumptuously shot depiction of a lesser-known moment in history. Taking place after President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the picture seeks to recreate hysteria and shady political dealings during a time of nationwide turbulence. Unfortunately, instead of mounting a crushing procedural picture filled with facts and figures, director Robert Redford elects for a more melodramatic route, turning all the accusations and disgust into a wobbly drama of limited emotional impact.
After the death of Abraham Lincoln and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, America was searching for a scapegoat to absorb the blame for such a significant tragedy. Enter Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a meek southern landlord whose son played a key role in Booth’s plan, though she refuses to substantiate the accusation. Placed on trial along with several other suspects in the conspiracy (including Norman Reedus), Surratt finds hope in Fredrick Aiken (James McAvoy), a reluctant lawyer tasked with proving her innocence, despite his northern background and belief in her guilt. Embarking on a viciously tainted trial, Aiken searches for clues and weaknesses to help his case, facing a government (including Kevin Kline as Edwin Stanton) that desperately wants Surratt hanged for her crimes, doing whatever it can to stymie Aiken’s efforts.
The greatest achievement of “The Conspirator” is how masterfully it evokes the era, with the film capturing unsettled American life during the death rattle of the Civil War. When the screenplay by James D. Solomon isn’t toying with courtroom theatrics, it creates a palpable sense of disorder to backdrop the trial. With Union and Confederate tensions in the air and a governmental shift in place to cover for Lincoln’s loss, the film is perhaps most secure bringing viewers into that combustible national uncertainty. The picture is also expertly lensed by Newton Thomas Sigel, who bathes the images in sepia and sunlight, creating a rich period look that helps to buy the performances and the costume party ambiance. The feature encourages a thorough screen examination, setting an arresting visual tone that Redford often has trouble supporting dramatically.
Surratt’s tale isn’t the most momentous collection of frustrated legal affairs, with a dry routine of testimonial sequences and jail cell confessions driving much of the picture. The script tends to monologue instead of blast away with revelations and churning positions of doubt, eroding the tension of the story the longer Redford draws everything out. These are respectable performances from talented actors, yet “The Conspirator” never gets up to full gallop, despite heated subplots concerning governmental efforts to thwart Aiken’s legal efforts through intimidation and deception. Surely, some old-fashioned paranoia could jolt the movie awake? No such luck, with Redford fixated on pained reactions and aching Aiken exhales, not a developing sense of suspense.
Twists are here, along with the heart-stopping thrill of last minute legal filings. Despite the anguish of Surratt’s long march to the hangman’s noose, “The Conspirator” seems too cautious and fragile to give the matter the emphasis it deserves. Instead of recreating history with fantastic cinematic sway, the feature feels like thumbing through a textbook where the pictures are the only highlight.