Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Conspirator

Director Robert Redford instructing my boy James McAvoy
The Conspirator (U.S., 2010) directed by Robert Redford, 122 minutes at Ryerson Theatre, September 12, 2010

Director Robert Redford has tackled the true story of the lone woman charged in the assassination of president Abraham Lincoln during the final days of the American Civil War. Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) was the mother of one of John Wilkes Booth’s alleged accomplices and ran a boarding house in which the small circle of assassins gathered. Perhaps unknown to some (I certainly did not know), several acts were committed that day against senior officials of Lincoln's administration. It would most definitely have appeared as if a small band was trying to bring down the whole government.

The public temper was understandably volatile and vindictive in the days following the assassination 

Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union war hero and lawyer, is tapped against his own wishes by his mentor, former attorney general Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), to represent Mary Surratt. Surratt is a Southerner, a Confederate sympathizer and determined to protect her son who is one of the few alleged conspirators who has escaped the massive manhunt conducted in the aftermath.

As a former Union soldier who has seen his colleagues and friends mown down by the Rebels, McAvoy moves from icy disdain and indifference towards Surratt’s fate to an absolutely committed defense of her rights regardless of her real or perceived involvement. James McAvoy never disappoints – I have enjoyed his work ever since my first glimpse of him in The Last King of Scotland then Becoming Jane, Atonement and more recently The Last Station. Intelligence and passion emanate from him in every role – as diverse as they may be.

It’s not a great stretch to see that the ever civic-minded Redford has tackled a topical issue: how does a nation respond in times of perceived attack and national grief? Do we protect the rights of the accused and those suspected of assisting the accused? Post-9-11 hysteria immediately comes to mind and the attack and incarceration of Muslims with some arguing that rights should be abrogated due to the horrific nature of the circumstances surrounding 9-11, that America is in a state of war and should not be concerned with the rights of the accused while under attack.

Even now the debate rages on with the controversy surrounding the building of mosque near Ground Zero - implying all Muslims are suspect and must still be accountable for the acts of a few extremists nine years almost exactly to this very day on 9-11.

Robin Wright, a beautiful woman who is almost unrecognizable here, strikes the perfect note as a common woman, widowed, somewhat impoverished and beleaguered, embroiled in an ugly national mood where her daughter is held hostage in the family home, the family home is repeatedly attacked and Wright feels she must withhold the little she knows of the truth to protect her son.

The women are particularly strong: Alexis Bledel as Aiken’s genteel love interest and Evan Rachel Wood as Mary Surratt’s embittered daughter. Well worth a look.

In a Tiff: Today's whiner (winner) of the day award goes to a wild-haired, bad tempered TIFF patron with a broken foot who stood in line to see this movie, whined continually about her pain and yelled instructions to her unfortunate partner across the street as in "I DON'T WANT A HOT DOG!!" And yes, she was standing right behind me.

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