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Conspirator, The (Blu-ray Review)

11 Aug, 2011 By: Billy Gil

Street 8/16/11
Box Office $11.5 million, $29.95 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, ‘PG-13’ for some violent content.
Stars Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Kevin Kline, Danny Huston, Evan Rachel Wood, Justin Long, Tom Wilkinson, Alexis Bledel, Colm Meaney, Johnny Simmons.

The Conspirator mines excitement out of a lesser-known chapter of American history, dealing with the trial of alleged co-conspirator Mary Surratt that follows the assassination of President Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth.

Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy of X-Men: First Class) has just returned from the Civil War a hero and becomes a public defender under the tutelage of Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Only, his first case is to defend Surratt (Robin Wright), who ran the boarding home at which the alleged conspirators, bitter Confederate avengers (one of them being her son), plotted to kill the president.

Aiken recoils at the request to defend Surratt — and why wouldn’t he? This is a man who was nearly killed, as seen in the life-or-death first moments of the film, defending the Union, and he then has to defend a person who’s been publicly declared guilty of aiding to murder the Union’s leader. Aiken’s sneer toward Surratt is palpable, and she knows it, but she maintains her innocence.

But is she or isn’t she? Aiken seeks to get to the bottom of the story, learning objectivity with the help of Johnson.

The Conspirator manages to take a major historical event and focus on one aspect of it, thereby taking what could have been a dry historical reading and making it into an absorbing courtroom drama. Through Robert Redford’s assured direction and excellent underplayed acting from some of the people who know how to do it best (kudos to the entire cast, notably to a fiery McAvoy and wearily magnificent Wright), the past is illuminated in a way that feels relevant and revelatory.

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