It’s unfortunate when on paper, everything about a film should work, and in practice, it just falls short. With Robert Redford directing and a cast including James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson, and Robin Wright, as well as subject matter as powerful as Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, The Conspirator should be a powerful and riveting movie. Instead, it’s a bit slow and a bit dull; hard to believe considering that this true story concerns the people arrested following the president’s murder, and the trial of a woman who ran a boarding house. Mary Surratt was accused of conspiracy, based on the fact that several of the men arrested had either lived or spent time at her home, and her missing son was closely involved with John Wilkes Booth. The movie gets off to a tense start, with multiple assassins moving through the city of Washington as the Union begins to cautiously celebrate the war’s approaching end. In addition to Lincoln, they targeted the Vice President and the Secretary of State.
Sadly, after this initial excitement, the movie settles down to a plodding pace, focusing on Surratt’s reluctant lawyer, Frederick Aiken, played adeptly by McAvoy, as he slowly comes around to believing that Surratt deserves fair treatment, meanwhile alienating everyone in his social circle. McAvoy is a fantastic actor, here with an impeccable American accent, and he does his level best to elevate the excitement. Aiken’s passion for what he believes is palpable. Unfortunately, focusing on a defense lawyer’s predicament is, well, predictable, and not as exciting as the point of view of, say, one of the other conspirators, who spend the trial silently lined up at the back of the room. With a different script and in other hands, this film might have fulfilled its promise. We can only imagine.
The Conspirator is available for rent at Hollywood Express on Mass Ave. in Cambridge and on Netflix.