Conspiring for tedium

In the final installment of his TIFF correspondence, Parker Mott fills the Journal in on the latest from Redford and lethargic post-heroism

The Conspirator picks up in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination as seven men and one woman are charged with plotting to seal the President’s fate.
The Conspirator picks up in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination as seven men and one woman are charged with plotting to seal the President’s fate.
The latest directorial effort from Robert Redford, the film received a standing ovation at its TIFF screening.
The latest directorial effort from Robert Redford, the film received a standing ovation at its TIFF screening.

Movie: The Conspirator Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright Penn and Justin Long
Director: Robert Redford (Lions for Lambs)
Duration: 122 minutes

2 Stars out of 4

Robert Redford’s The Conspirator tries to mince so many themes together, I’d call it lethargic post-heroism. Post-heroic because it was about a nation that had just finished a civil war and was now attempting to redefine their obscured patriotism.

Lethargic, well, because most of The Conspirator’s duration (about two hours) feels like a feverishly detached courtroom drama that’s screenplay seems to be yelling, “I’m thematic, damnit!”

On the surface, this is a very compelling movie—granted, very histrionic. In the 1860s, heroes didn’t exist anymore, only villains. The courts flooded with suspected assassins, cryptic cases and politically incorrect impartiality. The American judicial system followed a fusty order: if one was convicted, they were expected to confess. It wasn’t right, it was convenient.

After the sudden, devastating murder of Abraham Lincoln, America panicked. The symbol of liberty and equity had been eliminated and bringing an answer to justice was a way to atone this loss.

The assassination scene is elegantly shot and abrasively staged by Redford but there is no blood shown—quick and awkward, as these killings were. As conventional directors do, they insinuate the conflict almost instantly—they do not transform our expectations, but formulate them.

The target of assumption? Mary Surratt (Robin Wright Penn), a sombre and brazen woman who holds the highest intentions of her innocence. She is perceived as a malicious Confederate, the co-conspirator of the president’s assassination. Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is her reluctant lawyer, who while initially adamant about Mary’s culpability, gears towards proving her innocence by the end.

Throughout the trial, Redford emits the futility of the case. The majority of the court officials were appointed by the prosecution and have already been convinced. Second, Mary is irrefutable and good-willed because she is a woman with a chip on her shoulder.

Her son, John, is also suspected of treason and her daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), is a recluse, who ponders at her house and sheds a tear when the camera cues her.

The Conspirator is a film that tries very hard to be moral. It tells a story with strong injustice and poignancy. Redford bombasts his musical score to inform us, as if that is the route to his emotional channel. People yell, bark and proclaim in smeary-eloquent monologues to carry the scene along its array of moral fibre.

You even have that gleaming, incandescent light beaming through the windows, zoning the energy in on the mise-en-scene and not necessarily the film’s poise (or pace for that matter). Other performances by Justin Long, Kevin Kline and Alexis Bledel are pure placeholders, who enter the story to move from one moral conclusion to the other.

James McAvoy turns The Conspirator from a snooze to a light doze. He has the conviction of a young Christopher Plummer—his subtleties produce a startling charm and his eloquence bestows profound intellectuality on his character. Wright Penn however, I found hammy, a performance Redford only really illustrates through medium-reaction shots. Oddly, Redford distances us from her persona, never allowing us to inquire on her internal reality and thought process.

There are two movies Redford is alluding to here. First, Carl Dreyer’s brilliant The Passion of Joan of Arc. His camera moves ponderously in the courtroom, trying desperately to absorb the audience in the despondence and hopelessness of one female character. Dreyer though was insistent that Joan of Arc was encompassed in close-ups, in order for us to detach ourselves from the courtroom drama and deal with the subject of regression.

Then there’s Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, a magnificent film that did the impossible (according to many filmmaker such as Francois Truffaut): it told a story of war that didn’t emphasize the beauty of its action but the deceleration of its merit. Paths of Glory was shot in black and white and captures the feeling of the murkiness, pathos and impurity war possessed. The Conspirator attempts much of Kubrick’s themes, but retracts by monotonously carrying us through a narrative that ends how all these post-Braveheart epics usually attempt to end. Finally its wrongful use of colour creates extroverts who should in fact be introverts.

The Conspirator received a standing ovation at the screening I witnessed. I think most were intoxicated by its grandeur, good-intentions and monumental themes. It’s nothing for the history books and it’s not exactly exciting. Before The Conspirator screened, Redford stated how he loved to personify morality. He does that here, but could he spare the bludgeoning next time?

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