Film Review: “The Conspirator”

by Jason LeRoy on April 15, 2011

Robin Wright and James McAvoy in THE CONSPIRATOR. © 2011 - Roadside Attractions

starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Alexis Bledel, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Justin Long, Norman Reedus, Danny Huston, Jonathan Groff, Johnny Simmons, Stephen Root, Colm Meaney

written by: James Solomon (screenplay/story), Gregory Bernstein (story)

directed by: Robert Redford

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some violent content.

There are different kinds of bad movies, many of which provide at least some level of entertainment value amidst their innocuous awfulness. But perhaps the most frustrating, face-palming bad movies are the ones that look like Best Picture contenders on paper but are just dreadful in their execution. The Conspirator is one such film.

In theory, this should be one of the best movies of the year: Oscar-winning filmmaker and all-around hero of cinema Robert Redford directing an all-star cast in a juicy true story from one of our nation’s darkest moments. Robin Wright stars as Mary Surratt, the struggling widow who had the profound misfortune of renting a room in her boarding house to John Wilkes Booth in the period leading up to his assassination of President Lincoln. The key players have fled, so Surratt and a handful of Booth’s accomplices are arraigned and tried as conspirators in the assassination.

Enter Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Civil War hero and lawyer who is assigned to be Mary’s defense attorney. Aiken is extremely dismayed to find himself representing Mary, who has already been overwhelmingly convicted in the court of public opinion. But as he spends more time with her, as well as her daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), he begins to realize that perhaps Mary isn’t guilty after all. But it seems like the trial is really more of a formality on the path to Surratt’s execution, with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) working in collusion with the prosecuting attorney, Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), and the military tribunal of judges to ensure that Surratt is found guilty and the nation’s bloodlust for revenge is satisfied.

So, this really should have worked. Compelling story, A-list talent, political topicality — what could go wrong? In a word: everything. This is one of the most astonishingly tone-deaf, amateurish historical dramas I’ve seen. It is subpar even to History Channel dramatizations. I spent nearly half the movie with my forehead buried in my palm, so egregiously has Redford miscalibrated nearly every element of his film.

To call it “old-fashioned” would be extremely generous. The entire thing feels buried under centuries of dust. This dustiness informs the film’s visual aesthetic as well, which is to say, this movie looks like shit. Its picture is soft and dull, with nothing but drab browns as far as the eye can see. Each indoor scene set in the daytime is distractingly suffused with “natural light” flooding in through every open window; McAvoy is washed out by this wildly exaggerated backlight so often, you begin to wonder if his character will be revealed as an angel in the third act.

Then there is the rather unfortunate decision by Redford and screenwriter James Solomon to tell the entire story as a color-by-numbers legal procedural. The film begins with Surratt’s arrest, spends the rest of its running time at her trial, and ends with her [spoiler alert if you never learned U.S.history] execution. Is there anything more boring? Even Law & Order knows to limit its courtroom scenes to just a few minutes in the final segment. I’m not saying it’s impossible to make a courtroom scene riveting, but this skill appears to be beyond Redford’s grasp.

The court scenes in The Conspirator are so absurdly stagey and dry, you’d think you were watching an incompetent dinner theater production of Twelve Angry Men. Redford, having utterly abandoned subtlety, makes the conspiracy against Surratt so blazingly transparent (with cartoon-villain performances from the likes of Danny Huston and the actors on the tribunal) that the audience never for a moment doubts its existence. Although I must say that the extras in these scenes are absolutely hilarious. Every time they looked at each other to react about some bombshell that has just been dropped on the stand, I pictured Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy in Waiting For Guffman saying “Hub hub hub!”

Nearly all of the great actors Redford has assembled are hung out to dry by the shoddiness of the storytelling. This is the kind of movie where you’re constantly aware that you are watching modern actors in period drag. Like, “Look, James McAvoy and Alexis Bledel are dressed up like a Civil War-era couple! Oh my, look at that old-timey beard on Kevin Kline! Oh look, there’s Justin Long! What the hell is he doing there?” The answer to that last question is “embarrassing himself.” Long has clearly been cast as some attempt at comic relief, but unfortunately the script doesn’t actually let him say anything funny, so instead he just seems miscast and unsure of himself.

The only kind things I can say about The Conspirator regard the performances of Robin Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, and to a lesser extent, James McAvoy. Wright, one of the most underrated actresses of her generation (where is this woman’s Oscar nomination?), is haunting and luminous. When she is onscreen, her voice and presence as an actor are clear enough to cut through the ill-conceived drudgery of Redford’s mess. This is a towering performance that deserves a much better film. Wood is perfectly cast as her stunned, grieving daughter. And McAvoy fights his way through a generically written part with conviction.

So how could a filmmaker as legendary as Robert Redford lay such a stinky sulfurous egg? This is the man who directed Ordinary People and A River Runs Through It and Quiz Show! However, he followed Quiz Show with The Horse Whisperer, The Legend of Bagger Vance, and Lions For Lambs. And with The Conspirator, I dare say he’s officially lost his touch. This is a well-intentioned liberal allegory about the un-American things Americans do when we feel collectively threatened, but Redford’s lack of subtlety sinks this ship. The Conspirator gives its characters as ham-fisted and prejudiced a trial as they gave to Mary Surratt.

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