At TIFF: History Class is in Session with Robert Redford's Conspirator (Just Don't Fall Asleep)
Behold the paradox of Robert Redford: Lauded as one of the most innovative, influential filmmaking advocates around, as a filmmaker he has acquired a reputation as a snooze and a scold. In turn, over the last decade especially, I have acquired a reciprocal Redford Reflex: When I heard that his as-yet-unacquired historical drama The Conspirator was screening at TIFF, I felt my eyelids droop ever so slightly, and my throat begin to dry. An independent project with a rich vein of history running through it could be double trouble or a revelation. Either way the Redford Reflex was in full effect; I knew my morning screening would require something large and violently caffeinated.
What's true of almost all of the actor-helmed films screening this year (there are 11 by my count) is certainly true here: Redford has attracted an embarrassment of talent to his telling of the story of Mary Surratt, the only woman prosecuted for conspiring to assassinate President Lincoln, and her reluctant defense attorney Frederick Aiken. Robin Wright plays Mary and James McAvoy is Aiken, a civil war general returned from battle only to have the imminent peace he fought for threatened by Lincoln's murder. Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, and Colm Meaney appear as variously invested military, legal, and political brass, and Evan Rachel Wood plays Mary's daughter Anna, sister to confederate collaborator John Surratt, who escapes arrest and leaves his family in the lurch. Having hosted -- whether knowingly or half suspecting -- the meetings where the assassination was hatched at her boarding house, Mary finds herself on the hook along with those who actually did the deed.
A brief prologue establishing Aiken's heroism (he puts the life of a fellow soldier, played by Justin Long, before his) and a longer sequence illustrating the assassination itself form a preamble to where the bulk of the film takes place: On a soapbox. No, I'm sorry: In a courtroom. With Aiken unsure of Mary's guilt or innocence but increasingly disillusioned with the lengths the prosecution will go to to secure her conviction, the trial proceeds as a well-acted expression of a lot of "freedom isn't free" and "justice isn't just" proselytizing. The script by James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein is awash in pedantry and platitude, but the bones of the story are too solid for bad dialogue alone to sink it. The real shame is that Redford got to the story of Mary Surratt before, say, anyone else.
Though the period details are perfectly serviceable (with the exception of Alexis Bledel's unmistakable aughties affect), Redford favors an embalming, lemony light and non sequitur angles that self-consciously obscure or otherwise bisect even innocuously appointed frames. The effect is unnerving as well as unsightly; especially when rudely bleaching McAvoy -- who gives his shakiest performance to date -- out of his own shot, the loud blasts of light call attention to pretenses that a more intuitive director would have worked hard to efface. Not only can Redford not get out of the story's way (or get his lighting director's heavy hand out of the frame), he is sure to hammer every modern parallel, no matter how attenuated, to the wall.