This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 19th June 2011
Robert Redford’s latest attempt at serious art takes up the true story of Mary Surratt, the boarding house owner who, along with seven men, finds herself charged and put on trial for conspiracy in the 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. We are in the thick of post-Civil War America, and Surratt’s young Unionist lawyer is not initially convinced of his client’s innocence (James McAvoy, boasting yet again his prowess at slipping from various regional British accents into a convincing American twang of the South). Clearly anyone who’s anyone comes out to play if Redford invites them, as McAvoy is but one bright star in a galaxy lit up by the likes of Robin Wright, Danny Huston, Tom Wilkinson and Kevin Kline.
Each of the men gets the chance to bang his fist on a table and make a strong proclamation about the disgrace of it all (the assassination – not the film). As Surratt, Robin Wright wears a noble but pained expression throughout her imprisonment, hunger strike and courtroom battle, lifting her veil occasionally to utter a purse-lipped plea of innocence. As her daughter, Evan Rachel Wood seems similarly constrained, perhaps by corsetry rather than decorum, and overall the narrative feels ponderous, not aided by unexceptional revelations at trial.
Redford may be an esteemed actor, and certainly his film-making ambitions are nothing short of worthy, but he hasn’t directed a good film since Quiz Show in 1994 (unless fans of The Horse Whisperer beg to differ). Even the recent Lions for Lambs, which rolled out a top-notch cast against the potentially fascinating backdrop of the US government’s involvement in the Middle East, still managed to bore audiences to tears.
The photography is beautiful, and the production design of the early scenes which set up Lincoln’s demise in a theatre evoke superior films of the period such as Ride with the Devil and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Unfortunately though, once the deed has been executed we drift into a courtroom drama that largely fails to enthral.