In the wake of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, the Vice-President, and the Secretary of State. The lone woman charged, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), 42, owns a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and others met and planned the simultaneous attacks. Against the ominous back-drop of post-Civil War Washington, newly-minted lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a 28-year-old Union war-hero, reluctantly agrees to defend Surratt before a military tribunal.

Drama offers a fresh twist on an infamous episode in American history.

When Robert Redford launched the Sundance Institute to support emerging filmmakers and the exhibition of independent cinema in 1981, it’s doubtful whether he anticipated having to depend on indie financing and distribution in the twilight of his career.

It’s a measure of how far the Hollywood studios have largely abdicated serious-minded, historical fare that The Conspirator, Redford’s eighth outing as a director, was funded by a wealthy individual and released in the US by a bouquet distributor.

Which is odd on at least one level because the pivotal event depicted – the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and related attempts on the lives of Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward – is familiar to just about every American.

Redford and first-time screenwriter James Solomon delve into the little-known trial of a woman accused of conspiring to kill all three, seeking to draw parallels between that case and recent events such as 9/11.

Yet the film failed to connect with American cinemagoers, earning $US11.5 million at the box office, a poor result for distributor Roadside Attractions (which acquired the rights after the world premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival) and well short of the reported $25 million budget. It was the first feature from The American Film Company launched in 2008 by Joe Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs.

So if the Yanks weren’t interested in this new perspective on one of the most shameful episodes in their history, will Australians give two hoots? I’m not sure, despite Redford’s reputation, a fitfully intriguing narrative and generally accomplished performances. Even if it is a bit perplexing as to why the director cast a Scot (James McAvoy), a Pom (Tom Wilkinson) and an Irishman (Colm Meaney) in key roles, resulting in some uneven accents.

After a brief prologue, the film re-enacts Lincoln’s assassination in Ford's Theatre on April 14 1865 by actor John Wilkes Booth, his escape on horseback and later being shot by troops in a burning barn.

Among other suspects who were quickly identified are 21-year-old John Surratt (Johnny Simmons) and his widowed mother Mary (Robin Wright), who ran a Washington boarding house allegedly used as a meeting place by the conspirators. Mary is charged with conspiracy to murder while soldiers search for son who, she says, had gone to Canada two weeks earlier.

Reverdy Johnson (Wilkinson, in exaggerated Southern drawl), an attorney and powerful Democratic senator from Maryland, asks fellow lawyer Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) to represent her. A former Captain in the Union Army, Aiken initially refuses, believing she’s guilty and a traitor.

He changes his mind after she protests her innocence, declaring, 'I am a Southerner, a Catholic, a devoted mother; I am no assassin," and he decides the rule of law should outweigh the government’s desire, expressed by the stiff-backed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), to have her and eight other defendants swiftly tried and convicted by a military tribunal headed by gruff General David Hunter (Meaney).

After further conversations with Mary and her daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), Aiken presents a strong case. The courtroom exchanges between Aiken and the chief prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston) are well written although Redford needlessly uses flashbacks when the witnesses’ testimony (true or not) would have sufficed.

The dramatic tension chiefly revolves around whether Mary is prepared to offer up her son to help prove her innocence and, of course, the verdict and the aftermath.

Where the narrative lacks balance is in its portrayal of the Northerners as ruthless politicians, bullying soldiers or arrogant toffs, and the poor old Southerners as their victims.

In part, the film feels like an earnest, worthy but occasionally dull history lesson, or at least one version of history, not unlike Redford’s last directing effort, Lions for Lambs.

Wright eloquently conveys her character’s bravery, determination and fierce loyalty to her son. McAvoy offers up his customary upright, principled, indignant act, although his relationship with his girlfriend Sarah (Alexis Bledel) is given cursory treatment.

The period is realistically depicted although Redford and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel shoot the courtroom, Mary’s cell and Stanton and Johnson’s offices with harsh sunlight streaming through the windows, a device that’s annoying and distracting.

As for the movie’s relevance to latter-day terrorism, I think that’s drawing a very long bow although some may see a parallel in the internment of suspects in Guantanamo Bay.

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2 hours 2 min
In Cinemas 28 July 2011,
Thu, 12/08/2011 - 11