As the head of the Sundance Institute and the godfather of the Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford has helped provide a practical education for countless filmmakers, but that doesn’t mean he needs to keep treating filmgoers like fidgety schoolchildren. First, he punished audiences with the coma-inducing current-affairs lecture Lions For Lambs. Now he brings the dishwater-grey seriousness of the classroom to the big screen with The Conspirator, a lifeless new drama about the only woman indicted for the Lincoln assassination. Let’s just be grateful that boring old Professor Redford only afflicts audiences with his good intentions and social consciousness about twice a decade.
James McAvoy stars as a promising young attorney burdened with the impossible feat of defending a woman (Robin Wright-Penn) accused of being one of the conspirators behind the plot that killed Abraham Lincoln and wounded Secretary Of State William H. Seward. McAvoy’s background as a Union war hero makes him a politically savvy pick for the job, but he’s nevertheless ostracized and persecuted for representing such a reviled figure, and his proud, defiant client isn’t about to make his task any easier than it has to be.
Redford chronicled the travails of a different kind of public pariah in Quiz Show, but his workmanlike historical drama fatally lacks a figure as compellingly tormented as Ralph Fiennes’ fraudulent academic or as intriguingly abrasive as John Turturro’s chatterbox know-it-all. Instead, we’re left with the likeable but bland McAvoy and the shrill, unknowable Wright-Penn. The Conspirator wants to unleash a sense of righteous outrage over a historical wrong, but it’s far too sleepy and polite in a PBS pledge-fund-appeal sort of way to incite mild interest, let alone passion. The Conspirator should skip theaters altogether and become the first film released straight to middle-school history classes, where the standards for what can generously be deemed entertainment are much lower.