Period Piece Pandemonium
Period Piece Pandemonium is an ongoing series in which we discuss those wonderful films that take us back to a different time and place, and create a magical journey into the past. *Disclaimer- we at yeahmovies.com cannot be held responsible if said movies are neither wonderful nor magical.
You know a movie is going to be disappointing when the first scene sees a character start to tell a joke, and then never finish it. Thus is the fate of The Conspirator, the Robert Redford directed movie about the trial of Mary Surratt, mother of one of the Lincoln assassination planners and boarding house proprietor to the others. There was a lot of this movie I didn’t like, but when push comes to shove, I did like it overall. Most of this affinity most likely comes from a book on the whole plot behind the assassination and the aftermath, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson. If you have any interest in American history, you absolutely must check out this guy. It is by far one of my favorite works of non-fiction.
What also worked well for The Conspirator was the help of the American Film Company, which produced this movie as its first foray into cinema. The sets and costumes look very authentic, which made it easy for me to transplant myself into 1865. The lighting, too, was handled with care, as it never was obvious that artificial lamps were being used, because, obviously, there weren’t any back then. Also, all of the accents sounded very accurate, with the Northerners still having a twinge of British in there, and the Southerners having the beginnings of the drawl.
The aspect of this film that falls flat is the courtroom drama and the scenes that supplement that. This wouldn’t be so bad if the movie’s central plot line wasn’t all about the court case. James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, a young lawyer and Union Army veteran. He is given defense of Mary Surratt even though he believes her to be guilty, but over time has a change of heart and loudly champions her cause. Or, that’s what should have happened. In the movie, he starts out thinking her guilty, but his research and intuition never convince him otherwise. He makes a ruckus about the trial being rigged and his client never having a fair chance to be tried appropriately (she is put in front of a military tribunal instead of a civilian court room), not because he believes in her, but because he continually is blocked by the prosecution. Instead of shouting for equality on behalf of his client, the movie makes it seem that he is shouting because he is upset he can’t do his job well. Therefore, because Aiken is the main character, the audience following him can never attach to Surratt’s cause. Handled better, the film could have shown more of Aiken preparing the case outside the courtroom, allowing the audience and himself to become more attached to Surratt, instead of making each court scene a surprise to the viewer. Plus, the fact that we have no idea how adept a lawyer Aiken actually is makes the legal aspect of the movie that much more frustrating.
Other flaws that show through are the cliché about upholding the Constitution in movies involving the government, the fact that Aiken and his girlfriend Sarah’s storyline is never brought to a close, and how Justin Long should never appear in a period piece. He’s just too modern looking. Nevertheless, the movie’s opening is very tightly done, showing the assassination plots unfold, and the performances of Kevin Kline and Robin Wright are very good. Like I said, I did enjoy this film even though I had a lot of problems with it. And of course, sic semper tyrannis!