“The Conspirator” (M) ★ ★ ★

ROBERT Redford’s film telling the story of Mary Surratt’s trial and eventual execution has some resonance with 21st century proposals for the trial of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay by a military commission, because the Surratt case – in time – led to a US Supreme Court decision that such commissions may not try US civilians.

Abraham Lincoln’s murderers had lodged in Mrs Surratt’s house.

Her son was among the conspirators. Following the assassination, un-elected men holding the reins of government sought revenge to calm public anger. The film is a sere, bleak account of the contrived political means by which they got it, railroading an innocent woman to the gallows by interference with witnesses, denial of proper representation, threats to her legal counsel.

James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, a Union officer wounded in the Civil War, engaged by lawyer Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to defend Mrs Surratt (Robin Wright).  Colm Meany plays Maj-Gen Hunter, chairman of the military commission, allowing politically-powerful but unelected Secretary of War Stanton (Kevin Kline) to pull strings that destroyed Mary’s defence.

“The Conspirator” works hard to achieve historical verity. It’s a distressing story, a film to respect, even admire, but hardly one to enjoy. When the box-office person hands you your ticket with a smile and a cheery “Enjoy the movie”, be charitable and just smile back.

At Greater Union and Dendy

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