When Abraham Lincoln is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, six of his co-conspirators are rounded up. The subsequent trial is organised by Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), the Secretary Of War, who wants a quick trial and verdict in order to placate a population left reeling from the death of their president.
Among the accused is Mary Surratt, a civilian who owned a boarding house at which Wilkes Booth and his cohorts, including her son, plotted the president’s death. But the outstanding and unusual circumstances of the crime lead her to be tried in front of a military court, thereby denying her the right to a trial in front of her peers as guaranteed by the Constitution.
The case for her defence falls to Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) who in turn passes it to a young, inexperienced Union veteran Fred Aiken (James McAvoy). Aiken is at first reluctant to take the case – he believes Surratt to be guilty and sees that he’ll be damned as a traitor if he succeeds and branded a failure if he loses. But Reverdy manages to convince him that the ideals laid down by the law should not be compromised even in the most extreme circumstances and Aiken gradually comes to believe that she might not be a guilty as he first thought.
The Conspirator has a cracking cast and is expectedly well-polished. McAvoy and Robin Wright Penn deliver convincing and heartfelt performances without ever sinking into over-sentimentality. She’s quiet and reserved, finding a place between fear and sorrow, reluctant to even cooperate with her own attorney as she’s so convinced of the outcome.
There’s some strong support from Colm Meany as an inflexible Attorney General and Kevin Kline gets the chance to stroke his Machiavellian chin whiskers as the uncompromising Edwin Stanton – willing to sacrifice the needs of the few for the perceived good of the many. Danny Huston is also his reliably excellent self as the smug prosecuting lawyer and Stephen Root puts in an excellent turn as a drunken tavern owner. Only Justin Long as Aiken’s moustachioed war buddy seems misplaced – his facial hair looks like someone’s stapled a dead rat to his upper lip.
What’s impressive is what The Conspirator avoids becoming – it’s not a sensationalised account of one woman’s fight against the system – this isn’t a Civil War Erin Brockovich. Mary Surratt’s guilt or innocence isn’t the real focus of the film; it’s the injustice of her not being allowed an adequate defence.
However, despite its superb cast, and high production values, The Conspirator lacks a flair that would really see it stand out from other historical dramas. Where it should have been punchy, it often feels stilted – a product of the endless monologues and speeches which every cast member sees fit to deliver. Still what remains is a solid, well-acted and compelling historical drama, which will unfortunately probably vanish from cinemas without much notice.