Saturday, February 14, 2015
At about the same moment that southerner John Wilkes Booth was shooting Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865, an accomplice was attempting to murder the secretary of state, and yet another abandoned his mission to kill the vice president. These perpetrators and other conspirators hatched their plans at a boarding house owned by Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). This is her story. Or rather, the story of how this southern widow was tried, with the defendants who survived the ensuing manhunt, for conspiracy to assassinate the president.
But that's not quite true. This is more clearly the story of lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a northerner who served with distinction in the Union army, who draws the unlucky assignment of defending Surratt. Predictably (both from an historical and plot perspective), he's skeptical about Surratt's claims that she merely ran a boarding house and was not part of the conspirators' late-night plottings at her establishment.
At first, Aiken does not even try to hide his disbelief and contempt for his client. But his growing astonishment at the ham-handed way the proceedings are stacked against her does more than Surratt herself can to propel him into making a case for her innocence, or at least for a claim that she played no active role.
At its heart, this movie is an old-fashioned courtroom drama. It gets off to a slow start, picks up the tempo in the final third, but never quite breaks into a full-throttled emotional stride. Perhaps lest the obvious parallels to today's military tribunals of terrorists cut too close to the bone, the performances are restrained and the speeches, while effective, never take on the grandeur you'd expect from such momentous events. Wright plays Surratt as tired and broken, not indignant and combative. McAvoy is more animated as he deftly exposes the witnesses' clumsy fabrications and chides the judge and prosecutor. But he plays the final scenes like a race horse that is straining against the bit, never allowed to quite give it his histrionic all.
But those are still good performances, which alone make The Conspirator worth a viewing.