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The Conspirator movie poster

The Conspirator: Movie Review

Genre: Drama
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Robert Redford

Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Danny Huston, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Justin Long, Alexis Bledel, Colm Meaney
Released by: Lionsgate

In Short: History is served in this drama surrounding the events following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, but the deathly slow pacing of this courtroom drama makes it a film that only a true aficionado of the period could appreciate.

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Period Courtroom Drama Falls Flat

Robert Redford and the marketing wizards at Lionsgate chose the perfect weekend to open “The Conspirator.” Redford’s latest directorial effort follows the story of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the ensuing killing, capture and trial of the conspirators who committed the crime. Opening the film on April 15 is a brilliant maneuver. For it was 146 years ago to this day (okay, actually one day later) that John Wilkes Booth took Lincoln’s life on April 14, 1865. Too bad the movie, with its plodding pace, isn’t as clever.

It isn’t the fault of the acting ensemble, led by James McAvoy. He’s Frederick Aiken, a Union soldier recently returned to his law practice in Washington, D.C., when the president is murdered. As Booth is tracked down and killed and his fellow conspirators are rounded up and imprisoned, the plot thickens. Among the conspirators is Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), mother of one of the still-at-large plotters and landlady to others. Was she part of the conspiracy? That’s the crux of this drama that unfolds in dank prisons and dark courtrooms.

James McAvoy and Tom Wilkinson in The Conspirator Robin Wright in The Conspirator

Wright gives a brave performance (seemingly without any makeup) as the accused mother, a drab, sad, middle-aged woman who finds herself accused of a capital crime that she insists she did not commit. As the story unfolds, Aiken agrees to represent her, fighting for her constitutional rights as she and the others are railroaded toward the hangman’s noose. They are up against Secretary of War Edward Stanton (Kevin Kline) and the other government officials, who are determined to make an example of the conspirators, stripping them of their right to due process.

There are obvious parallels to present-day actions of the Unites States government, which created the Homeland Security Act post 9/11 as a basis to strip any citizen branded a terrorist of their “inalienable rights.” But while these similarities certainly offer food for thought once the credits roll, the fundamental problem with the film remains. Its pacing, as the courtroom action plods along and the frame-up of Mrs. Surratt is cemented into place, is just so sluggish that even those  fascinated by history will begin to squirm in their seats.

Reviewed by Jenny Peters


(Updated: 04/15/11 CT)

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