It is a tale that has been touched on by Hollywood before, but Robert Redford’s latest directorial effort – The Conspirator – looks at the assassination and its aftermath from a different perspective.
John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot Lincoln dead, is not the focus of this reconstruction of events.
Instead the film tells the story of Mary Surratt, the only woman to go on trial accused of being one of the conspirators.
Surratt – played by Robin Wright – owned a guesthouse which was frequented by a number of the conspirators, including the man who pulled the trigger John Wilkes Booth.
Booth is hunted down and killed in a shootout not long after the assassination and a group of the alleged Confederate plotters, including Surratt, are rounded up and put in prison to await trial.
Surratt vehemently maintains her innocence, and it falls upon Frederick Aiken – a Union war hero – to defend her at trial.
Staunch unionist Aiken, played by James McAvoy, initially sees it as betrayal for him to defend someone accused of plotting to kill the President.
But he is persuaded to represent Surratt by his mentor and former Attorney General Reverdy Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson.
The odds are stacked heavily against the young lawyer and his client.
For a start the trial takes the form of a military tribunal, rather than a civilian court with a jury of her peers.
The tribunal are out for blood, their Commander in Chief has been slain, and they have Surratt in their sights. There seems little chance she will be acquitted.
But Frederick Aiken is dogged and he is determined not to give up without a fight.
The more time he spends with Surratt, and the more he gets to know her, the more convinced he becomes of her innocence.
And as the trial goes on the more frustrated he becomes with the unfairness of the proceedings.
Defence witnesses are ‘turned’ by the prosecution, and vital evidence is overlooked.
Aiken’s battle for justice to be done consumes his whole life.
The central performances from McAvoy and Wright are stellar.
And they are very ably supported by Wilkinson, Justin Long (who plays Civil War veteran and Aiken’s best friend Nicholas Baker) and Evan Rachel Wood (who plays Mary Surratt’s daughter, Anna).
It is interesting that Robert Redford chose English actors such a McAvoy and Wilkinson to play American characters, and shows the esteem in which they are rightly held on the other side of the pond.
The Conspirator is Redford’s first directorial work since the excellent Lions For Lambs, and this is of similar stature to the 2007 film.
It is part costume drama, part courtroom drama, and the result is gripping.
The attention to detail of the costumes, sets, props, and landscapes is first class, bringing extra realism to proceedings.
Much of the colour seems washed-out, and this provides much of the movie with a dark and dim look – which perfectly portrays the dark theme of the plot.
Mary Surratt’s story is one that had far-reaching ramifications for the American legal system that exist to this day.
The fascinating and moving story of her trial is one that until now has been largely unknown but hopefully The Conspirator will go some way to change that.
by Ben Green
Star rating HHHH