Clumsiness overshadows The Conspirator’s intrigue

by Andrew Doerfler / Beacon Staff • March 17, 2011

 

Desperate times call for desperate measures, the saying goes. As The Conspirator, Robert Redford’s new historical drama, shows, those measures can involve uncomfortable sacrifices. And it turns out they also make for a heavy-handed movie.

Redford’s film shares the story of Mary Surratt, the mother of John Wilkes Booth’s alleged right-hand man and the only woman to be charged in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

When Surratt (Robin Wright) is forced before a clearly biased and arguably unconstitutional military trial, former Union soldier Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy)  surprises fellow northerners by agreeing to serve as Surratt’s defense attorney.

It’s an intriguing account that poses all sorts of worthwhile  dilemmas of allegiance. And there’s no denying the story’s relevance to current constitutionally-ambiguous legal proceedings, especially in light of President Obama’s recent decision to resume military trials for Guantanamo detainees. The finished product, however, betrays the premise’s potential in a clumsily forced mess.

Redford first picked up the script in early 2009 and was, for unknown reasons, determined to complete the movie by the end of that year. The rushed timeline shows.

The randomness of the cast itself seems a slapdash attempt to cover as many fanbases as possible. From lauded veterans like Tom Wilkinson and Kevin Kline to pop-fare figures like Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls) and Justin Long (the personification of Mac computers), The Conspirator is brimming with so many recognizable faces that viewers are left wondering who will provide the next arbitrary cameo.

Robin Wright and James McAvoy lead the pack, but their approaches to the film don’t sync up. Wright’s two speeds — the Catholic stoic and the desperate mother — come off as ideas that Redford wants to convey, not realistic and sympathetic traits. McAvoy’s casual and contemporary portrayal of Capt. Aiken, meanwhile, ends up conflicting with the overwrought old-fashionedness with which Wright plays Surratt.

As incongruous as McAvoy’s performance is, in the long run its informality provides a much-needed respite from the forced period-acting that pervades the film.

Evan Rachel Wood, playing Surratt’s daughter Anna, calls for her mama in a fashion that would fit best in a Lifetime movie cerca 1865. Justin Long, as McAvoy’s war buddy Nicholas Baker, is downright cartoonish as he dons hammed-up 19th century vocal inflections.

Not every actor falls flat — Danny Huston is engaging and satisfactorily frustrating as the prosecuting attorney, and Kevin Kline is thankfully reined in by a role that doesn’t allow for his usual overacting. But these successes are drowned by the dozens of the performances that appear to be ripped out of a PBS historical recreation.

The script adequately lays out the characters’ major struggles: Aiken’s allegiance to the country he fought for versus the principles on which that country was founded and Surratt’s love for her fugitive son versus her steadfast morality.

But, as in the performances, the lack of subtlety with which it operates forbids viewers from losing themselves in the story, instead leaving them constantly reminded that they’re watching a film with a message in mind.

After a recent screening, Redford explained in a student press conference that he was drawn to Surratt’s trial as a film subject because it’s an unknown side to a universally known story. For its introduction to a wide audience, though, this overlooked moment in history deserves more thorough and careful treatment.