FILM: The Conspirator

On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth assassinated the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, as part of a far-reaching conspiracy.

That same night, Lewis Payne stabbed secretary of state William H Seward and an attempt to kill vice president Andrew Johnson failed because would-be assassin, George Atzerodt, lost his nerve.

The murder of Lincoln shocked the war-torn nation just as the Confederacy was preparing to surrender to the Union.

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Director Robert Redford chronicles the aftermath of the shooting in this historical courtroom drama, told from the perspective of the one woman arrested and charged in connection with the assassination.

The veteran filmmaker captures the era with aplomb, de-saturating the screen of colour to mimic Autochrome, a film developing process invented in the early 1900s by the Lumiere brothers.

His history lesson certainly looks the part - pity the delivery is so dry.

Following the assassination, John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) is hunted down with his co-conspirators including Samuel Arnold (Jeremy Paul Tuttle), George Atzerodt (John Michael Weatherly), David Herold (Marcus Hester) and Lewis Payne (Norman Reedus).

Police also arrest Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who owns the boarding house where the men concocted their heinous plan.

Her son John (Johnny Simmons), one of the alleged plotters, remains at large.

Idealistic lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a protege of southern senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), is hired to defend Surratt against the bombast of prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston) before a military tribunal headed by General David Hunter (Colm Meaney).

Initially, Aiken views his client with contempt.

“She built the nest that hatched this plot,” Aiken seethes.

“Tell you what,” calmly replies Reverdy, “if you can prove that she’s guilty, you can take yourself off the case.”

As the tribunal unfolds, it becomes clear that the odds are unfairly stacked against Surratt and she is being used to flush her boy out of hiding.

The Conspirator is a fascinating true story of a shameful episode in America’s legal history when the Constitution was torn to shreds in the name of so-called national unity.

McAvoy puts fire into his defender’s belly and Wright curries sympathy for her mother, who is willing to sacrifice herself for her child: “I didn’t want John turning out like his father so I kept him close.”

Strong supporting turns from Huston, Wilkinson and Kline stoke the flames but Redford’s film never quite catches fire.

The inevitability of the final verdict, laid down in the history books, dissipates some of the suspense but Redford is seemingly unconcerned about generating any dramatic momentum.

Despite the volatility of the period and the high emotions surrounding the case, the director and scriptwriter James D Solomon maintain a pedestrian pace.

The Conspirator delivers its final verdict when it is good and ready.

By Damon Smith.

Released: July 1 (UK & Ireland) (12A, 123 mins)