Robert Redford helms this historical legal drama set in the aftermath of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. James McAvoy leads the cast as Frederick Aiken, a Yankee war hero returned to civilian life and a fledgling law career. Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) singles Aiken out to defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) who is accused of harbouring the Confederate conspirators (one of which is her son who has absconded) in her boarding house and being part of the conspiracy herself.
Aiken naturally protests that he is unprepared for such a massive case. He also protests that he cannot represent someone whose guilt has already been established and whose actions have been so repugnant to a nation. But does he protest too much?
Yes, yes he does.
Redford directs a humourless and rather dull history lesson. The intention was to shed light on a previously unknown part of the Lincoln story and to pose some questions of the audience. Questions like: Are military trials of civilians ever justified? Can the constitution be put on hold in times of national crisis? Should you be blindly loyal to a cause or a family member? Should one person be used as a pawn to sate a nation’s need for revenge?
Unfortunately the questions are ones that can be answered immediately: “Well….no”. And that is pretty much that. No real agonising over that one.
The film hinges on the character of Mary Surratt and, as she is portrayed in this film, she is not interesting enough a character to carry that burden. Robin Wright’s self-conscious and charisma-free performance makes it seem like she does not even want to be there most of the time. She hangs her head disconsolately one moment then she looks away wistfully the next. “I’m acting here” she thinks to herself. “Wait a moment, and I’ll do my sad face again for you. Here you go. This is me acting.”
By contrast, McAvoy gives another terrier-like performance of youthful energy and righteous indignation. He is left to carry the weight of the film and manages to inject some life into every scene. He commands the courtroom with his thinking-on-his-feet, free-wheeling style, making good use of the Columbo tactic of “Uh, just one more thing…” and consistently out-‘nobles’ all the competition throughout. No one comes close to how noble Aiken and his cause are. And lest we forget, the music is there to remind us of this.
Of the rest of the cast, Danny Huston is a safe pair of hands as the slippery prosecuting counsel although he must now be the go-to guy for untrustworthy establishment types by a country mile. Evan Rachel Wood is also very good and sadly underused in her role as Anne Surratt, Mary’s daughter. A rare treat is Kevin Kline as Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, and Aiken’s opponent-in-chief giving some much-needed moral complexity to proceedings.
In the DVD extras, Redford talks about the ‘palette’ of the film being important to help the audience engage with the period and because he used to be an artist in his youth (???). Certainly, great credit must go to the costumers, make-up artists, set designers and all those involved in the look of the film. It looks great but, even as the music soars at the movie’s conclusion, your spirit refuses to soar with it.
7 men and 1 woman were charged with the conspiracy and you are left wishing Redford had included some more of their individual (or collective) stories. Or, at least, someone else’s story. British actor Toby Kebbell (excellent in “Dead Man’s Shoes”) shines briefly as the charismatic chief assassin, the actor John Wilkes Booth, and you mourn his departure so early in the story. An infatuated Anne Surratt keeps a photo of him secret from everyone. Perhaps she, like us, hankers for more too.
IN SHORT – A stillborn history lesson. Looks great but is essentially empty.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Too earnest by half.