The Conspirator is a dramatization of the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. All of the assassins except for one were rounded up and hauled off to jail. Lumped in with them was the mother of the assassin that got away, Mary Surratt (Wright). Charged with conspiring to kill the President, Vice President and Secretary of State, the plot focuses on her trial.

The film starts off really strongly. Within the first twenty minutes, we have a clear idea of Aiken (McAvoy), Surratt’s lawyer and the film’s main character, especially in regards to his social standing and his Yankee ideology. So, Abraham Lincoln has been murdered and most of those implicated in the assassination have been tracked down. It’s an awesome way to start the movie. And while that constitutes pretty much all of the action in the film, the courtroom dramatics keep you every bit as hooked and glued to the screen. The trial’s depiction is interspersed with bits showing its effect on Aiken’s social life, his talks with his client and her daughter and flashbacks illustrating the witnesses’ testimonials.

The Conspirator revolves around McAvoy’s character Aiken. A former Yankee soldier in the civil war, he has as much contempt for the group of southerners that killed his president. Forced by his boss, who has a big problem with civilians being tried in a military court, to defend Mary Surratt, he reluctantly takes on the case, thinly disguising his feelings for his client. His inner idealist rears its head however, when he becomes aware of just how scanty the evidence is against her and how much of a sham the trial is. He gradually becomes fully invested in preventing the state from using Surratt as a scapegoat and putting an end to this blatant disregard of the constitution in the name of state security.

Except for Bledel who played Aiken’s partner and appeared terrified at the prospect of saying her lines, the acting here was uniformly strong. Particularly commendable was Wright as Mary Surratt. Her son’s actions have put her in a situation where he is on the run and she is facing a death sentence for his crimes. Her only chance is to implicate her son in the assassination which she completely refuses to do and is torn when her lawyer and daughter pin the blame on him in any way to save her life. Her maternal feelings battle with her sense of self preservation, all the while never losing her sense of dignity and faith in God.

The film’s issue with military trials for civilians, while highly relevant for us nowadays, is dealt with in a very black and white way. Aiken is the idealist who categorically refuses the idea that the constitution can be overturned in times of instability. On the other hand Stanton, the secretary of war and the man who is pretty much in charge of the country, is the complete opposite. In his opinion, the greater good trumps any lesser evils even if the lesser evil happens to be executing an innocent woman. In this reviewer’s opinion, Aiken, as a devoted Yankee soldier, should have been able to see the issue from Stanton’s point of view and struggle with the duality in himself. While McAvoy gives a great performance, he comes off as a bit too idealistic for a guy who just got out of a four year war against the very people he’s defending.

The Conspirator is a period courtroom drama with a fascinating story and great acting from a laundry list of some of the best actors and seasoned actors in Hollywood today. Perfect for history buffs.