Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The Conspirator

2010. Dir: Robert Redford. Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Danny Huston and Tom Wilkinson. ●●○○○

The trouble with watching films that posit a political statement that you support is that whislt the euphoria of a high quality finished article is heightened so to is abject disappointment of poorly made movie making. Sadly The Conspirator falls squarely in the later camp, for it's liberal pleading for social justice and the rule of law the inadequacies of the movie itself somewhat negate the impact of the message.

The film opens, utterly pointlessly, on the field of battle - or at least the aftermath due to budgetary constraints - with James McAvoy's serious Lt. Frederick Aitken trying to keep the horribly injured Justin Long alive by telling him an inappropriate joke. Fortunately we never hear the end as medics arrive first to cart off McAvoy but he persuades them to tend to his friend first. I suppose the point of the scene is to introduce McAvoy's self-sacrificing nature and to reinforce the bravery of the man, even to highlight his stubborness. It pretty much fails on all counts as personally I never felt McAvoy's life was in danger, as horrific as his injury may appear there's little sense of sacrifice in the scene.

This scene is important though as those qualities are repeated and reflected in McAvoy's journey through the rest of the film, and it feels equally false in context of the legal battle to save Robin Wright's Mary Surratt the mother of the Lincoln assassination support team that got away. Yes, McAvoy loses membership of his officers club, his haughty girlfriend (Alexis Bledel) and finds his sholastic legal reputation tarnished but none of that seems like a great loss and he friends seem to be prepared to stick by him at all costs. Part of this issue is McAvoy - he seems uncomforatble in the role and fails to convince as a patriotic and torn soldier forced to defend a woman he clearly imagines as guilty.

The vast majority of the running time is given over to McAvoy's defence of the case, from the early days as a paralegal to Tom Wilkinson's Southern born senator (who knows he cannot win the case due to the perception of his loyalties during the civil war and eventually manouvres McAvoy into taking the case alone) to the final summation of the case where McAvoy rails against the clearly biased military court procedure with no jury organised and orchestrated by prosecution counsellor Danny Huston - tiptoeing malevavently around the court like an oiled spider.

Robin Wright gives a great performance as the proud Southern matriach, unapologetic for her thoughts and beliefs and stubbornly refusing to save her victimisation (the film unequivocably indicates her likely innocence) by selling out her absentee son. Stoical, even in the shadows of the gallows, Wright is able to bring layers to the character that simply aren't there in the script a tilt of the head or a flicker of cheeks making up for the lack of anything for her to do. Equally under-represented with the screenplay is Evan Rachel Wood as her daughter Anna, although she too tries her best dodging the over obvious symbolism in the set decoration.

Whenever we leave those two ladies the pace of the film suffers though, McAvoy's priviledged circle pontificate self-righteously but come across as boorish or irrelevant. Robert Redford, directing James D. Solomon's script, seems unable to coax any sense of reality form the supporting cast of Army officers and Kevin Kline's bespectacled Edwin Stanton, gleefully pushing over the rule of law in order to give the public the sense of retribution they desire is given no sense of character depth.

Redford has yet to make an interesting movie, essentially the best of his films have been well staged insightful scripts, and that workmanlike style is shown up in all it's inadequate slendour given the meandering, preachy script.

And remember this review is from someone who wanted to like the film. I would argue for the fundamental rights of habeous corpus for all. The continued injustice of Guantanamo Bay (and you could argue the foreign policies of extraordinary rendition, military tribunal and indefinate incarceration without charge are the real subjects of this film) is a cancer in the US constition, it blights the best intentions of the early signatories and the principles of justice must be applied to even those accused of the most heinous crimes. So just imagine what the the backers and apologists of the war on terror will make of this film.

We on the left deserve so much better.


TomS said...

This film had a rather mediocre reception out here... even in the state where I live, Illinois, "The Land of Lincoln". The marketing on this film failed to make its subject matter clear, or engaging.

An interesting review..probably better than the film deserved.

I will raise a friendly objection, and claim that I did find Redford's "Ordinary People" quite intersting, in its believable observation of a family in extreme conflict... A film that wisely used an invisible style of filmmaking, and allowed the characters' interaction to dominate the screen, and absorb the audience. :)

Runs Like A Gay said...

If only the quality matched the intention then it would have been something.

Don't get me wrong about Redford's back catalogue - I really like Ordinary People, but it's not like he brings anything beyond directing the actors to career best turns. The filming itself is utterly forgettable.