It was released in the USA in 2010 and after reading about it, I ticked this film as definitely to be seen. Directed by Robert Redford, starring James MacAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, THE CONSPIRATOR has just been released in Italy and I couldn't miss it. It's a remarkable, sharp, dry account of the facts following a shocking event in the history of the US . It's also a movie denouncing a vision of justice stained by revenge in moments of fear. It's impossible not to read the political aim in Redford's choices, but it is also unavoidable to admire the beautiful photography of his work and his masterly and highly symbolical use of light all over the movie. There have been other tragic shocking moments in recent history for the Americans, when the democratic ideal of a fair trial was suspended and frozen, and I'm sure they are constant reference to Redford while narrating these history-handbook events in this awesome 19th century period postcard. It's the story of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) , sentenced to death for conspiration against President Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Aiken (James MacAvoy) , the young lawyer who tried to demonstrate her innocence.
(Warning - Spoilers!)
Washington, 1865. Captain Frederick Aiken is back to town from the front, where he fought in the Union's Army, bravely risking his own life to defend that of his fellow soldiers and for a cause he totally believes in. President Abraham Lincoln is shot while with his wife and friends at the theatre. The culprit, actor John Wilkes Booth, dies while sieged by the Union soldiers chasing him after the murder, and his accomplices are caught and tried by a court martial. Among them, Mary Surrat, landlady of the guesthouse where the meetings among the conpirators might have taken place, and mother of John Surratt, a friend of the man who killed the President. Aiken is asked to become Mary's defence lawyer and he accepts, though he doesn't believe in her innocence and is strongly influenced by his own prejudices against those people from the South. Aiken starts working to find the evidence of Mary's guilt more than of her innocence, but couldn't find any.
He gets more and more involved in the process and Mary's defence becomes his personal fight for his ideal of justice, personal freedom and for a fair trial. He has to challenge both the ostracisms of the authorities - who want a rapid, exemplary sentence to death for all the indictees at any cost - and of his fiancè and friends - who don't share his dutiful involvement in the defence of a conspirator. He will demonstrate the unreliability of the witnesses, manipulated and threatened by the military powers. He will show the jury that Mary was just a mother protecting her own son on the run. He will fight until all the possible chances of justice could be given to Mary.
But, as Cicero stated, "Inter arma silent leges". In wartime, law is silent. So, Mary was executed, as a scapegoat to exorcize the fear, to give an exemplary lesson, to prevent other crimes. Paradoxically when her son, John Surrat, the most wanted man in the US in those years, was caught in 1866 (curiously enough, here in Italy, near Latina, as stated in the document on the right) and tried for complicity in the murder of President Lincoln, he was found not guilty and released. Aiken gave up being a lawyer and became editor of the newly founded Washington Post.
Robin Wright and James MacAvoy deliver intense performances supported by a very good cast and Redford plays with their close-ups and with light with great emotional incisiveness. The light simbolizing justice all over the movie blinds Mary in one of the final tragic scenes. Someone opens an umbrella to protect her. A lesson I won't easily forget.