The narrative begins with the fateful night of Lincoln's murder in 1865, depicting the act and subsequently glossing over the manhunt with an all too brief montage. Seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with murder, with the lady in question being Mary Surratt (Wright Penn). For it was her boarding house that the conspirators stayed in, including her own fugitive son John. War hero Fredrick Aiken (McAvoy) is persuaded to defend her, despite believing her to be guilty. He soon uncovers evidence that suggests her innocence, but his biggest fight is convincing the military tribunal presiding over her trial. After all, the public is hungry for vengeance and closure. This does not sit well with the notion of a fair trial...
The Conspirator is unapologetically heavy-handed with its moral didacticism, which does border on sermonising at times, but manages to make a convincing case for the need to put aside emotions in order to follow the path of the law. This still remains a very prevalent issue in contemporary society, especially in the context of recent high profile legal cases. In one superb scene, Aiken asks why it is that he has risked his life fighting as a soldier for the cause of establishing these fundamental laws, only for him to be branded a traitor when he strives to follow them.
As the young lawyer who reluctantly defends a national hate figure, James McAvoy (resembling David Cameron with a downy ginger beard) delivers a compelling portrayal of a man trying to do the ethical thing while struggling with his own conscience and loyalties. The role is somewhat underwritten and leaves one wanting to know more about his background and domestic affairs, and in a lesser actor's hands this could have been a very generic 'morally skewed protagonist' cipher. Robin Wright Penn doesn't need to deliver much dialogue as the anguished accused, but imbues the part with a great deal of dignity and pathos. Kevin Kline meanwhile, is formidable and barely recognisable playing against type in a supporting role as the curmudgeonly Edwin Stanton.
Robert Redford's gentle direction befits the performances and showcases the period setting, although his use of soft focus is baffling and undercuts the authenticity of the events he is portraying. Was he worried that the actors wouldn't like any wrinkles on display? Obviously Botox wasn't around in the times of Abraham Lincoln. The decision to deploy a series of flashbacks in the midst of tense courtroom scenes is also a mistake.
A worthy if flawed movie, The Conspirator transcends its mediocre beginning to serve up a very dramatic denouement as the narrative noose starts to tighten. The complex subject matter befits a mini series rather than a movie, with various key aspects glossed over. Yet the lead actors provide enough clout to justify sitting through the unimpressive early stages, while the various issues raised are extremely resonant and potent.