And jus­tice for all?


THE CON­SPIR­A­TOR Star­ring James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkin­son, Evan Rachel Wood. Screen­play by James Solomon and Gre­gory Bern­stein. Di­rected by Robert Red­ford. 122 min­utes. Rated M (con­tains vi­o­lence). Show­ing at Light­house Cin­e­mas In Hol­ly­wood, his­tory is a crap­shoot where any shred of re­al­ity or fact can be tossed to the side in the dra­matic scrab­ble for the au­di­ence’s emo­tions.

If they’re not sob­bing in the seats, you’re not do­ing it right.

It is in­ter­est­ing, then, that di­rec­tor Robert Red­ford chose to stick to the his­tor­i­cal facts in his post-Amer­i­can Civil War tale, The Con­spir­a­tor, even at the ex­pense of any real drama.

The Con­spir­a­tor tells the tale of Mary Sur­ratt ( Robin Wright), who was ar­rested and tried by mil­i­tary court for her sup­posed part – ‘‘ keep­ing the nest which hatched the egg’’ – in the plot to kill Lin­coln, Sec­re­tary of State Wil­liam Se­ward, and Vice-Pres­i­dent Andrew John­son in 1865.

The plot in­volved her son, who has es­caped cap­ture, and Sur­ratt will stand trial in his stead what­ever her part in the plot.

She is un­will­ingly de­fended by young lawyer Fred­er­ick Aiken (James McAvoy), a 28-year-old Civil War hero whose be­lief in the North is equalled only by his be­lief in jus­tice.

As Aiken’s de­fence of Sur­ratt is re­peat­edly – and un­eth­i­cally – thwarted by of­fi­cials and the court it­self, and as he comes to re­spect the be­atific Sur­ratt, his dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the gov­ern­ment he fought and nearly died for grows.

The con­clu­sion is in­evitably bru­tal. There was nei­ther lib­erty, nor jus­tice at the end of Mary Sur­ratt’s hang­ing rope. Red­ford does not shy away from show­ing that in gritty, if sepia-toned, de­tail.

But the jour­ney to the gal­lows Red­ford takes us on never at­tains the dra­matic heights this kind of pe­riod-drama would nor­mally reach. It ends up seem­ing like some­thing from the His­tory Chan­nel, al­beit with mas­sive pro­duc­tion val­ues and a crack­ing cast.

That’s be­cause real his­tory is sel­dom prone to Hol­ly­wood histri­on­ics or emo­tional ma­nip­u­la­tion.

Red­ford chooses in­stead to let the pitch per­fect per­for­mances of a vul­ner­a­ble and de­ter­mined McAvoy and a lu­mi­nous Wright pro­vide us with a con­nec­tion to the story.

Wright, clad in fu­ne­real black and with­out make-up – a brave choice for a woman her age in Hol­ly­wood – ex­udes an al­most re­li­gious calm and ac­cep­tance of her fate. It isn’t hard to be­lieve Aiken could come to love her.

McAvoy deftly por­trays Aiken’s slide from aver­sion to ad­mi­ra­tion for Wright’s saintly mother fig­ure, as well as the mount­ing hor­ror, des­per­a­tion and de­ter­mi­na­tion of a man who wants jus­tice where none can be had.

In the end it’s our in­vest­ment in the truth – his­tor­i­cal or not – of their re­la­tion­ship rather than the story, which ul­ti­mately de­liv­ers the real emo­tional punch of the film.

Gal­lows ro­mance: Robin Wright and James McAvoy con­tem­plate a grim fu­ture.

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