I have just returned home from seeing The Conspirator. Armed with my trusty bag of mini chocolate bars, I’m prepared to tell y’all my thoughts on the film.
Without giving too much away, the film’s focus is upon Mary Surratt and her trial in the wake of President Lincoln’s assassination. Don’t go to this movie expecting it to be the John Wilkes Booth show. You can go watch The Day Lincoln Was Shot for a more detailed account of the events leading up to the assassination and Booth’s plotting and planning to avenge the South. It is a fresh approach that has largely been ignored in the question of whether Mrs. Surratt knew of the assassination plans and if she might have even actively participated in it. The film depicts several layered nuances, such as Mrs. Surratt’s inability to accept that her son, John Surratt, was probably directly involved and willing to let his own mother be put on trial in order to keep himself hidden. The inability to believe that a woman should be harshly imprisoned or hanged for a crime is touched upon, and the question of fair trial by a person’s peers even in a time of war is put to the test.
James McAvoy played Frederick Aiken, the defense attorney who represented Mrs. Surratt (Robin Wright) in her trial. His performance was gripping and never faltered at any time. The true measure of an actor is the ability to make the audience forget that they’re watching a performance and some of the strongest scenes in the film were not in fact the trial but the prison interaction of Aiken and Surratt, as well as his struggle to defend her against even the opinions of his most beloved relationships. McAvoy and Wright were perfectly cast, as was Evan Rachel Wood as Anna Surratt, the daughter of Mrs. Surratt. Kevin Kline did a decent job of playing Edwin Stanton, who quite certainly was intended to come off as the top villain in the film, followed by the military tribunal. Adding to his repertoire of historical films, Tom Wilkinson played Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson, who initially defended Mrs. Surratt but ultimately passed the case onto Frederick Aiken, his younger associate.
Some roles were a bit awkward and didn’t quite fit with the tone of the film. Alexis Bledel’s inexperience with historical films showed and she came off as a starlet in a costume drama rather than a woman sinking her teeth into a dramatic role. Given a few more years of acting experience, she has the potential to do quite well in historical films as Kate Winslet has but this film was probably too soon in her career. Justin Long had a minor role in the film and suffered the same trouble as Bledel – appearing like a modern kid trying to play a costume drama. Toby Kebbell was cast as John Wilkes Booth and I had my reservations about the choice for this role even though it was a small part. I didn’t believe him. Booth had such fire and passion that he ignited a room with the flicker of his black eyes, which is nearly impossible for an actor to define. There was an underlying sense of passivity in Kebbell’s expressions and voice that only served to remind me that I was watching an attempted performance. In the way that Gods & Generals sounded like a series of monologues in an awkward school play, had Kebbell’s role been expanded, he would have put The Conspirator at risk for the same fate.
The costumes, sets and so forth were nearly flawless. I didn’t see any wannabe Scarlett O’Haras as most nineteenth century films fall victim. People looked dirty and greasy when they should have looked that way. Rooms were dim and smoky as they would have been in 1865. Suits and dresses were appropriate and not distracting to the performances. Reenactors and historians will appreciate the attention to detail that has largely been overlooked in the past.
There were some minor historical errors that I saw. I’m no expert on the trial, so there may have been errors that I missed. For example, John Wilkes Booth had shaved his mustache while on the run in order to try and disguise his appearance. Toby Kebbell sported the Booth mustache for all of his scenes. The tattoo on Booth’s hand was not present either. When he was shot in the barn, there was a mysterious lack of blood and Kebbell writhed a bit on the ground even though the bullet had severed Booth’s spinal cord, leaving him instantly paralyzed from the neck down. Also, it was clear that the filmmakers tried very hard to show the execution of the conspirators as it really happened, but they got a few things wrong. Mrs. Surratt was heard to have mumbled, “Don’t let me fall. Don’t let me fall,” while standing on the scaffold. Lewis Powell shouted, “Mrs. Surratt is innocent! She doesn’t deserve to die with the rest of us!” before they were all hanged. None of these things were portrayed in the film. The reason why is a mystery.
Despite some awkward casting and a small handful of historical oversights, The Conspirator is a moving film that asks questions about the justice system that are still relevant today. I highly recommend everyone go see this film. You would only notice the things I did if you had extensively studied the period. Outside of history, if you enjoy trial shows like Law and Order, you would probably really enjoy this film. McAvoy and Wright made the film worth the price of admission alone.
Some of you may be wondering if Booth showed up at the movie theater since I had opened my energy to invite him. He was there during the assassination scenes and after the trial. There was a scene in which Booth’s silhouette passed across the screen from left to right and as that happened, a very centralized cold pocket of air passed over my body from left to right at the same pace as the Booth on the screen. His energy was critical and not at all impressed with Toby Kebbell, but I expected that before I saw the film. As soon as the trial started, he disappeared and I felt nothing for the majority of the film, but when Mrs. Surratt learned of her fate, I noticed a black shape sort of wandering around behind the first section of seats before the stadium seats. A few moments later, I felt a bit of a wool sleeve brush my arm, which was impossible because there were no seats on my left since I was in the wheelchair row. The energy was agitated and anxious. There is probably some guilt on his part about her fate. He was a lot of things but he would never have condoned the execution of a woman. And he didn’t even want to look at Stanton. I can’t imagine why!
Note I didn’t have time to add last night: When I noticed the black shape, I was sitting on the far right side of the theater and the black shape was on the far left. It was not a living person because the usher passing through sometimes was a short, chubby woman with a flashlight, and the people sitting in front of us never got up or moved around. The black shape blocked out floor lights as it moved and that was what caught my attention. It was only for a few seconds but I think the people in my row noticed it too because I saw a few heads turn in that direction at the same time.
(PS – I have a big crush on James McAvoy in this role. He wears Union blue quite well.)