It cannot be an easy thing to mount a defense of the U.S. Constitution and the subsequent necessity of the rule of law in narrative form that is both entertaining and passionate, particularly when the crux of the matter is the essential blind dispassion of justice. But that’s what Robert Redford (Lions for Lambs) has attempted with his admirable — his too, too admirable — The Conspirator. It’s handsomely mounted and features the sort of prestige cast to make your film-geek heart ache, which makes it even more disappointing when so many most excellent parts fail to congeal into a satisfying whole. James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class) emotes his damnedest as young lawyer Frederick Aiken, appointed to the task of defending Mary Surratt (Robin Wright: State of Play), who is charged with conspiring with a gang of villains in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. She runs a boarding house where the conspirators — including her son — regularly met, and as Aiken himself notes, she either knew what was going on, or should have known. He finds it tough to find the heart to defend her, until his boss (Tom Wilkinson: The Green Hornet) convinces him that American ideals are at stake (Aiken had just spent years fighting for those ideals in the Union Army). For her trial is a travesty of justice, a military tribunal for a civilian in which she is prohibited from testifying in her own defense and her lawyer has no access to prosecution witnesses or evidence. I’m furious just writing that… yet the movie can’t manage to muster any genuine indignation about it, resorting instead for a curiously stentorian approach, declaiming when it might have more subtle and persuasive. This is less a story about an injustice than a marble statue commemorating one… but it’s worth a peek to see how hard McAvoy tries to make it all work, and for Wright’s still-waters performance as a steely-willed woman who stands by her own choices.
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