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TIFF ’10: Robert Redford’s ‘The Conspirator’ a compelling slice of American history

By Sean O’Connell
Hollywoodnews.com: A last-minute invitation to Roy Thompson Hall had me sitting down for the Gala premiere of Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” Saturday evening instead of heading back to the hotel room to write a longer “127 Hours” review. Last-minute schedule changes have been the norm at Toronto this year, which is fine – particularly when the end result is a ticket to an anticipated screening.

As a history buff (and proud Southern resident, where much of “Conspirator” was filmed), this one was on my list to check out while in Toronto. A recent story in the L.A. Times about Redford’s parallels to Sept. 11 — whether intentional or not — was top of mind, seeing as how this was the anniversary of those tragic attacks. And while Redford didn’t hook me with his last two films, his “Conspirator” returns the director to the sturdy period storytelling methods employed in “Quiz Show” and “A River Runs Through It.”

Redford is aided immensely by James McAvoy, who delivers a mature and complex performance as Civil War attorney Frederick Aiken. A veteran of the Union Army, Aiken begins practicing law near the end of the bloody conflict only to find himself defending Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a Southerner accused of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) to kill President Abraham Lincoln.

Despite her claims of innocence, Surratt is railroaded through the Union-influenced justice system by a bloodthirsty Northern prosecutor (Danny Huston) while Aiken clings to the rights granted an individual in the Constitution, even though defending Surratt is far from the popular thing to do.

You don’t have to look too deep into “Conspirator’s” soul to unearth connections to post-Sept. 11 America. Following a national tragedy, protective (but misguided) government officials seek swift retaliation because “the people want that.” McAvoy and Wright do most of the heavy moral lifting between decently staged courtroom sequences, arguing whether the rights of a few should be sacrificed to appease the vengeful demands of many. Redford’s attention to period detail impresses, though his casting decisions are questionable. Not Tom Wilkinson and Kevin Kline. They could blend into any feature. But Danny Huston, Colm Meaney and Justin Long (!!) look as out of place in a Civil War drama as Maggie Smith or Judi Dench would look in “Saw VI.”

Overall, Redford’s “The Conspirator” is a solid effort. It’s a compelling legal drama and a determined character study that will please students of American history, modern and otherwise.

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About Sean O'Connell

Sean O'Connell is a nationally recognized film critic. His reviews have been published in print ('The Washington Post,' 'USA Today') and online (AMC FilmCritic.com, MSN's Citysearch) since 1996. He's a weekly contributor to several national radio programs. He is a longstanding member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Southeastern Film Critics View all articles by Sean O'Connell Association (SEFCA).

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One Comment

  • September 12, 2010 | Permalink |

    One thing I can vouch for. Robert Redford, through his property master, John Bankson, made sure that the knives they used were accurate. They had Ford’s Theater send my husband the schematics to use as reference as he forged the reproductions. Commendable.

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