I don't know if I've mentioned it on here before, but I'm a history major. There's a long story behind why I went with that instead of film (starting with UNC only having a cinema minor, not a major), but the truth is I really enjoy history as well. In particular, I enjoy American history, and thus The Conspirator had a very interesting hook for me: set just after the Civil War and assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the film details the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a tenet-house owner in DC who provided housing for John Wilkes Booth and the other assassins, thus entangling her in the scandal. Young lawyer and former Union soldier Fredrick Aiken (James McAvoy) is tasked with serving as the defense, at first a job he reluctantly takes (he's supposed to lose). However, he begins to doubt Surratt's guilt, and stands up for her, though Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) is ready do to whatever it takes to see her hang.
The film is directed by Robert Redford, the actor/director who is pretty much American filmmaking in human form. Unfortunately, the film suffers from a number of problems. Redford's last few directoral efforts have been troubled, and The Conspirator continues that streak. The screenplay, by James Solomon, is structured so that we see the events of that time around the trial, but it never really makes much ado about some very important issues. For example, the film downplays the still-dangerous tension between the North and the South, and seems to downplay the fact that Surratt, a Southerner, was tried in military court by a jury completely of Union soldiers. Redford, too, makes some very odd stylistic choices, flooding various scenes with blurry light to the point that the whole film feels like a cheap History Channel special more than a narrative film.
But perhaps the biggest problem with the film is how distracting the cast is. Don't get me wrong, pretty much everyone involved is talented, but here they never seem to get into character. Everyone seems like they're doing a historical reenactment rather than a movie. The worst offenders here are Justin Long and Alexis Bledel, who are so jarringly recognizable that it instantly takes you out of the film. The best performances, on the other hand, come from Kline, who gets to be villainous, and Tom Wilkinson, who puts on a flamboyant Southern accent that I've never heard in Maryland before.
Overall, The Conspirator was a disappointment. It's a shame to see someone as truly talented behind the camera as Redford have so many recent failures, but this is just another in the line. C-
*I'm really sorry about the short length of this review. I watched this just this afternoon, and even now I'm having trouble even remembering it, which probably says even more about the film.*