Skip to content

Saturday Special: THE CONSPIRATOR Review

Saturday, April 16, 2011

      A riveting thriller, THE CONSPIRATOR tells the powerful story of a woman who would do anything to protect her family, and the man who risked everything to save her.

      In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State. The lone woman charged, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) owns a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) and others met and planned the simultaneous attacks. Against the ominous back-drop of post-Civil War Washington, newly-minted lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a 28-year-old Union war-hero, reluctantly agrees to defend Surratt before a military tribunal. Aiken realizes his client may be innocent and that she is being used as bait and hostage in order to capture the only conspirator to have escaped a massive manhunt, her own son, John (Johnny Simmons). As the nation turns against her, Surratt is forced to rely on Aiken to uncover the truth and save her life.
      Description from the official film website.

I may have mentioned once or twice that I minored in Civil War history when I was in school at LSU. Well, the last history class I took the semester before I dropped out was the class “The Civil War.” So I haven’t spent any time studying the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination after the arrest of John Wilkes Booth.

When I first saw the preview for this movie a few weeks ago, I knew I needed to see it. Thankfully, its “limited” April 15 release included Nashville. So fellow writing bud Liz Johnson and I made an evening of it, first with dinner at Panera and then the movie. It was in one of the smaller theaters at the twenty-seven-screen multiplex at 100 Oaks, and very few people were there when we arrived. But by the time the movie started, the room was pretty much full (and overly warm).

Because I knew I wanted to see the movie without knowing the ending, I purposely avoided doing any research into the case against Mary Surratt, mother of one of the Booth conspirators, John Surratt.

From the beginning of the film up to the death of John Wilkes Booth, the movie was spot on with historic accuracy—as well as with costumes, sets, and cast (special shout-out to Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Stanton and Danny Huston as Joseph Holt). So I’m curious to pull several of my favorite Civil War and Reconstruction history books off the shelf and read about the trial and, especially, Frederick Aiken.

There have been mixed reviews of this film, mostly stemming from the slow, measured pace of the film. This is definitely one of those slow-build stories (the word “thriller” in the description from the official site above threw me a little bit). The audience is asked to take this ride right along with Aiken (McAvoy) as he is asked (ordered) to take on the defense of Mary Surratt, charged with conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, and Secretary of State Seward. Mrs. Surratt owned a boarding house in Washington DC. Her son, John, had served as a courier/spy for the Confederacy—so he knew all the best routes out of DC and into Virginia. He and JWB became friends in January 1865, and John Surratt invited Booth and the other co-conspirators to his mother’s boarding house where they planned, originally, to kidnap President Lincoln and ransom him for the Confederate soldiers being held in Union prisons. Because of this—and because of the army’s inability to find and arrest John Surratt, Mary Surratt was arrested and put on trial as an accessory.

Born in 1832 in Lowell, Massachusetts (making him 32–33, not 28 as said in the movie), Frederick Aiken studied to be a lawyer by apprenticing to his father-in-law (also a discrepancy in the movie, in which he isn’t married—which is weird, because this info as well as the year of his birth are on the movie’s official website) and was admitted to the Vermont Bar Association in 1859. Much about Aiken’s life after this—including his military service—is conjecture (read the movie website’s bio of him—very interesting).

The movie focuses solely on Mary Surratt’s trial—and Frederick Aiken’s vocal and continued objections to the procedure of a civilian being tried by a military court. There were many times during the trial scenes when there were certain not-very-nice words that wanted to come spewing out of my mouth when the movie showed just how prejudiced against Mary Surratt the court might have been (I hope they studied the transcripts of the trial and took much of the story/dialogue from those records). There are so many themes and questions raised in this film that are still applicable—habeas corpus, innocent until proven guilty, justice versus revenge, etc.

The story unfolds at a slow, methodical pace, as does the relationship between Frederick and Mary as Mary slowly reveals what she knows to Frederick. The one thing that bothered me the most (aside from the lady sitting behind me who crunched on popcorn the first half of the movie and then spent the entire second half loudly sucking the husks out of her teeth) was the choice of the “haloing” effect with the lighting. The cinematographer made great use of the natural light—through windows, diffused through curtains, outside—as well as the candle/lamp light. But there were many scenes when there was so much haloing of the light that the actors took on a transparent effect—as if they were ghosts instead of real people. Maybe director Robert Redford meant that as some kind of psychological statement, but it didn’t work for me.

Costumes were great, but unlike in Jane Eyre, in which we got to see the gorgeous gowns in detail, because this isn’t a “girly” movie, we didn’t get to see much of the absolutely fabulous hoopskirts. My favorite is a dress worn by Sarah (Alexis Bledel), Frederick’s girlfriend, about halfway through the film—it’s an almost teal blue and worn with a beautiful lace collar. I wish they had a photo of it online, and that they’d shown the full dress on screen! Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the film’s costume design:

Bottom Line: I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and am looking forward to a second viewing once it comes out on DVD and I can enjoy it in the silence of my own house. It’s not a movie for everyone. If you’re looking for intrigue, thrills, and excitement, this definitely is not the movie for you. It almost feels more like a stage play at times, and it’s definitely a “procedural” in content and in structure. Great historical film, and a fantastic look at an event and two very important people which haven’t been given the attention they deserve until now.

  1. Saturday, April 16, 2011 8:54 am

    This is the local history I grew up with. I attended Surrattsville high school, a couple good stone throws from the Surratt house/tavern, which is on one of the main intersections in my home town. I know where Dr. Mudd’s house is and the spot where Boothe was apprehended. I’ll be very interested to see this movie.

    That intersection doesn’t look like this anymore, but I still recognize the Surratt house:


    • Sunday, April 17, 2011 2:52 pm

      You can’t get any closer than that! How interesting, Lori!


  2. Saturday, April 16, 2011 4:21 pm

    I’ve been waiting for you to go see this since I saw first saw the commercials! Elizabeth and I may go see it Monday.

    I also know very little about that conspiracy and am very much interested in seeing the movie. Based on your review I think I’ll chance it, since you’re as picky as I am about stuff like this.

    Even though Jane Eyre STILL isn’t playing here (GRRR!), The Conspirator is. Go figure.


  3. carlene permalink
    Saturday, April 16, 2011 10:34 pm

    seems like a lot of old wounds will be opened again if The Conspirator goes to far.


  4. Sunday, April 17, 2011 2:54 pm

    Great review, Kaye. I appreciate all the background info on this historical story that you shared. Looks like my kind of movie.



  1. Fun Friday–Summer 2011 Movie Edition «

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: