The Conspirator (M)

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Review byMatthew Turner1/07/2011

Three out of Five stars
Running time: 123 mins

With impeccable production design and an obviously well researched script, this is a worthy if slightly dull period courtroom drama that's ultimately worth seeing for strong performances from its impressive cast.

What's it all about?
Directed by Robert Redford, The Conspirator is set in post Civil War Washington and stars James McAvoy as decorated ex-soldier-turned-lawyer Frederick Aiken, who's asked to defend boarding house owner Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) when she's accused of conspiring to kill Abraham Lincoln. Mary's co-conspirators include seven other already-convicted men who frequented her boarding house in the company of Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell).

Initially, Frederick is convinced of Mary's guilt, but southern senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) convinces him of the importance of ensuring she receives a fair trial, even if political circumstances have resulted in her being tried before a military tribunal rather than a judge and a jury of her peers. However, Frederick soon realises that Mary is being used as a political hostage in order to lure the remaining conspirator (her son John, played by Johnny Simmons) out of hiding.

The Good
The Conspirator is the first feature from The American Film Company, which was established in 2008 with the specific aim of producing historically accurate dramas from America's past. Given Hollywood's track record with historical accuracy, this can only be viewed as a good thing and a lot of attention has accordingly gone into both the production design and the obviously thoroughly researched script.

McAvoy is excellent as Frederick, nailing the American accent and delivering a compelling performance that is part detective and part skilled courtroom manipulator. Penn is equally good as Mary and there's terrific work from a superb supporting cast that includes Evan Rachel Wood (as Mary's daughter Anna), Kevin Kline (as bullish Secretary of War Edwin Stanton), Alexis Bledel (as Frederick's fianceé) and the always-excellent Danny Huston as Judge Advocate General (and prosecuting attorney) Joseph Holt.

The Bad
The main problem with the film is that it occasionally veers into worthy-but-dull territory, as the insistence on historical accuracy doesn't leave that much room for exciting courtroom theatrics. Similarly, Kebbell is completely wasted as Booth, while Justin Long is miscast as Frederick's best friend, since his look and delivery are not best suited to costume drama (think Keanu Reeves in Dracula) and his presence is distracting as a result.

Worth seeing?
The Conspirator is a solidly directed, commendably worthy period courtroom drama with terrific performances from James McAvoy and a superb supporting cast.

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The Conspirator (M)
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Content updated: 15/10/2019 03:25

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