As actor, filmmaker and founder of the Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford has long prized storytelling over sensation. Redford doesn’t star in The Conspirator, but as the film’s director he eases with hypnotic skill into this largely untold tale of American justice in the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
The conspirator in question is Mary Surratt (a stoic, superb Robin Wright), the only woman charged in the murder of Lincoln. Mary owned the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) and others, including her son John (Johnny Simmons), met to plot the president’s murder. Was Mary, also the mother of Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), guilty as well? The movie provides no definitive answer. Neither did Mary, who went to the gallows pleading her innocence but refusing to rat on her son, the only conspirator to escape the authorities.
Redford, working from a provocative if sometimes plodding script by first-timer James Solomon, deftly weaves a tapestry of the forces at play in a torn country. Kevin Kline excels as Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s friend and secretary of war. Like Bush after 9/11, Stanton wanted a rush to justice. Mary was tried in a military court. Her attorney, Union war hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), reluctantly takes the case at the insistence of Southern senator Reverdy Johnson (the peerless Tom Wilkinson).
The film pivots on McAvoy’s powerfully implosive performance as a man trying to grow beyond his own prejudices. His scenes with Wright, under Redford’s nuanced guidance, give this film its timely resonance and its grieving heart.