James McAvoy in The Conspirator (2010)

The Sorrow of Surratt

After the murder of President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) orders all suspects to be arrested, the order includes Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) whose boarding house paid host to those who plotted the assassination, including her son John (Johnny Simmons) who fled before he could be caught. Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a 28-year-old Union war veteran having just qualified as a lawyer finds himself in the unwelcome position of having to defend Mary in a military court. Dealing with issues brought on by being forced to defend the unpopular Surratt he begins to doubt her guilt believing that not only is she doing what any mother would do and that is protect her son but is also being used as bait to lure John out.

Movies like "The Conspirator" are an interesting experience for me as I know little about my own countries history let alone that of America although I am of course aware of John Wilkes Booth being the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theatre. It means that my main interest in watching a historical movie such as "The Conspirator" is first and fore mostly as a form of entertainment but secondly out of some hope to learn something from the dramatization of events. What that immediately means is I cannot say how accurate of inaccurate director Robert Redford's dramatization is but can say it works as both an entertaining and interesting movie.

Robin Wright in The Conspirator (2010)

Now quite simply after a powerful and effective re-enactment of the actual assassination, including the attempt on other senior political figures "The Conspirator" becomes a courtroom drama where we have the reluctant lawyer representing a despised figure but through his investigating coming to understand that whilst hated may not be the criminal everyone suspects they are. It is a familiar set up but one which with its period setting has something more about it, a sense of grandeur rather than just showboating which is the case of so many courtroom movies. It is on that note that I have to say that Redford has given us an impressive looking movie, beautifully shot with impressive sets and a focus on the storyline and characters which isn't destroyed by all the prettiness going on around it. In fact considering some of the young names who appear in the movie such as Justin Long and Alexis Bledel it impresses even more.

But here is the catch which comes from having no real interest in the historical aspect of the movie. Whilst entertaining and impressive the familiar conflicts which appear in "The Conspirator" are the same as those in other courtroom movies. The fact that Aiken begins to believe that Mary is being set up is nothing new and whilst the facts of the case are interesting there is that aspect of familiarity which flows throughout it.

As a Brit with little interest in history I imagine my view of "The Conspirator" is very different to that of an American especially at the centre of this movie is The American Constitution and the need for fairness for everyone. This presents itself from May facing trial in a military court where it is clear the agenda was already set. In many ways whilst "The Conspirator" impressed, entertained and interested me I hope the effect is even greater on those who have a deeper connection to the story and the importance of what it is saying.

What this all boils down to is that "The Conspirator" is an impressive piece of movie making by Robert Redford and one which despite being a Brit with no interest in American history managed to both interest and entertain me.