The Conspirator (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
18Aug/111

The Conspirator (2011)

The Conspirator is a blown opportunity  of proportions so immense that it could have done the impossible and turned Robert Redford, nearly fifty years into his career, into an interesting director.  The opportunity, as it stands, is to examine a crucial trial in American history from the perspective of the woman he (apparently) feels was wrongly accused of taking part in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

The unexplored history of women in America is well concealed and could have made for an interesting examination of the double-standard that has plagued our legal system for so long in gender equality.  But that's not the film that Redford made, and pity to those of us that have to sit through the final product.  He strikes the historical source material of any interest and deleting evidence casting Surratt's guilt in any murky light.  Instead he bathes her in the white glow of innocence and settles for a watered down tale of Constitutional powers run amok in a routine and terribly boring tale that needed a John Grisham rewrite to develop any sort of traction.

This is a devastating shame, especially considering the talent assembled to tell this dull piece.  James McAvoy stars as the young Fredrick Aiken, charged with defending Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) and, by extension, the other conspirators who were arrested with helping arrange the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  Quite puzzlingly, we're introduced to Aiken a full two years before the trial as he tries to keep his friend Nicholas (Justin Long) alive so that they might return home.

Even if Redford was going for a historical feel there's no reason for the halo's and dirt surrounding the movie. Pictures from the 1800's have greater clarity than these compositions.

Why is Justin Long even in this scene?  Well, so the character of Fredrick has someone, anyone, to talk to.  Long continues to occupy dead space as his character lives through the war but fights for relevance on the screen.  Equally irrelevant is the painfully misused Alexis Bledel as his girlfriend, delegated to the worried wife role as Fredrick's defense of the conspirators provokes hostile reactions from his fellow Northern Unionists.  The scene where she just can't take it anymore is so predictable it was preordained by Nostradamus.

Where is the audience for this movie?  Historians are going to laugh at the inaccuracies plaguing the trial for emotional affect.  For example, much is made of the pain Mary went through since she was unable to see her daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), though the historical documents say they were able to visit regularly.  General film fans and cineastes are going to be turned off by it's glacial pace and overuse of dust constantly settling in a sad attempt to create "historical accuracy" (I have to wonder if water even existed in the 1800's because of all the particles and parched performers on-screen).

This brings us to the question of why Robert Redford bothered to make the blasted thing.  He is a longtime liberal and his steadfast determination to involve any mention of the Civil War that just ended is just plain odd.  Even stranger is his portrayal of Fredrick's fellow Union citizens as consistently conniving, power-grabbing and duplicitous bastards only concerned with vengeance against the former Confederate States.  The Union had its fair share of corruption after the war (during, too, if we're being entirely fair) but this presentation leads me to believe that the Confederates really were the scrappy rebels of myth.

Tom Wilkinson's presence can only be explained by his amazing performance in John Adams and hopes of duplicating its success here. His attempts are, sadly, very unfulfilling (thought not to his detriment, one can only do so much with this material).

So just what the hell is Redford's point?  Does he think that the seeds of our tendency to seek swift vengeance were found in this era?  If so then the first scene of a Union witness throws this into a pathetically funny light as the lying man arrives to testify with slicked back hair and a Bond villain demeanor sadly befitting his counterparts.  By contrast the former Confederates, constantly noble and putting others ahead of themselves, convert Fredrick to their near-messianic ways in spite of the whole war thing that just happened.

We learn almost nothing about any of these people.  Mary Surratt is propped up as such a martyr through Redford's overly-enthusiastic lighting that there are so few scenes examining who she was outside of her devotion to her son.  No one is spared from this single-minded approach and all of the characters are played on the same note the whole film.  Fredrick is idealistic, Nicholas is a jokester, Anna is tormented.  Rare is the period piece, no matter how inaccurate it may be, where I walk out with the notion that I lost knowledge simply by watching the movie.

What I'd like to stress is this, The Conspirator is so bland, routine, and willing to whitewash historical facts for the sake of badly written drama that you will leave dumber than when you walked in.  Should you find yourself on the receiving end of this film just trade it for the PBS documentary and please save yourself the trouble.

The Conspirator (2011)
Directed by Robert Redford.
Screenplay by James Solomon.
Starring James McAvoy, Robin Wright and Evan Rachel Wood.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Excellent review what a dud movie I confess I hated its everything 30 minutes in. GOOD & SMART THANX!


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