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dir Robert Redford
scr James D Solomon
prd Brian Peter Falk, Bill Holderman, Robert Redford, Greg Shapiro, Robert Stone, Webster Stone
with James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Danny Huston, Alexis Bledel, Evan Rachel Wood, Justin Long, James Badge Dale, Colm Meaney, Johnny Simmons, Toby Kebbell
release US 15.Apr.11, UK 1.Jul.11
Burden of proof.Wright and McAvoy
|R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E
Robert Redford revisits the Lincoln assassination with this earnest historical drama. Being a relatively obscure chapter of American history, the story is pretty fascinating, although the film is so parched that it rarely comes alive.
After the President is murdered in 1865, inexperienced lawyer Frederick (McAvoy) is assigned to defend Mary Surratt (Wright), who is charged with conspiracy alongside eight others. As a war hero from the North, Frederick is horrified to get this job, but is convinced by his boss (Wilkinson) that she at least deserves a fair trial. Of course, in the hysteria following the war and assassination, that's not likely. The judge (Meaney) clearly takes sides, the prosecutor (Huston) is relentlessly arrogant and the war secretary (Kline) has already decided on a verdict and sentence.
The film lays out its present-day relevance early with comments about "suspending the Constitution" in times of war, scapegoats to assuage the public, and government and media propaganda that makes sure everyone in the country believes the accused is guilty before any evidence has been presented. Frederick gets the brunt of this prejudice, so of course his girlfriend (Bledel) and closest friends (Long and Dale) doubt his loyalties.
While this helps the story's themes resonate more strongly, it's done rather heavy-handedly. And Redford directs the film as if he was shooting it through clouds of dust. In other words, it couldn't be much more worthy if it tried, and often feels dry and over-serious, with rare moments of levity or earthiness that feel forced and sometimes anachronistic. Instead, lofty speeches abound as Frederick points out the injustice of this wartime system. Mary even offers a key point, noting that her accusers are "so blind with hatred that they can't see the truth".
Fortunately, the cast members give the characters life beyond the history lesson. McAvoy is extremely sympathetic as the young guy standing up for principles against the current of popular opinion. Wright commands the screen with her raw intelligence. And the supporting cast includes fine work across the board, never letting the characters get lost in their stirring dialog and impeccably tailored period costumes.
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© 2011 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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