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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Co-Picks of the Week: New. The Conspirator; Jane Eyre

(Three Stars)
U.S.: Robert Redford, 2010, Roadside Attractions

The late Sidney Lumet, I think, would have liked Robert Redford‘s new movie, The Conspirator. It’s a film that, like Lumet’s courtroom masterpieces 12 Angry Men and The Verdict, deals dramatically and memorably with the vagaries of the law, and with the wars between justice and injustice, between vengeance and mercy, between truth and prejudice. But it’s also a film that, this time, doesn’t necessarily show us one good man (like 12 Angry Men’s Juror No. 8), prevailing against the many.

Producer-director Redford’s picture is set in 1865, in the aftermath of The Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell). And it follows, with a clear eye and a heavy artistic commitment. the famous case of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright, superb), the mother of one of the Booth cabal, John Surratt (Johnny Simmons).

Mrs. Surratt was a women who found herself accused of conspiracy and put on trial for her life with the others, mainly because she owned and ran the boarding house where they met. She was a passionate Southerner, but there was no real evidence linking her to the assassination, and in fact, it seems unlikely that Mrs. Surratt would have had a place in the plot, or that Surratt would have bragged to his mother beforehand about planning to kill the President of the United States.

Besides, even if she was involved — and, in real life, she may have been — she was a woman, she was a mother, she was older, and she had obviously lost everything: reputation, livelihood, health, honor, and worst of all, she had lost her son, who never came back to take the blame and save her life.

Yet, despite all this, in the film, Lincoln‘s coldly partisan and relentless Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline, almost unrecognizable and very powerful) wants to make sure that Mary is found guilty. He wants her condemned to death by hanging, because he feels that legal killings, as many as he can muster, are the ways to heal a country in crisis. Though his philosophy is markedly at odds with Lincoln’s own oft-stated Christian humanist compassion, Stanton does everything possible to provide those deaths, every last one of them, beginning with his insistence on a military trial rather than a civil one.

Contending against Stanton’s representative and creature in court, the slick prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), are, first, Mary’s more liberal defender, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and when Johnson leaves, his protégé, young lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy, in the best performance I have ever seen him give).

Aiken is a Union Army veteran, newly returned to his sweetheart Sarah Weston (Alexis Bedel), and he is at first unenthusiastic and reluctant about taking the case, as well as pretty well convinced of his client‘s guilt. Eventually, as more and more doors are slammed in his face, and as the noose is knotted more firmly around the neck of Mary — a woman bitterly resigned, hurt, suspicious, and unwilling even to accept court help from her daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) — he becomes obsessed with saving her, and, probably in his mind, with saving the honor of the law as well.

Stanton is equally determined that his predetermined sentence will be fully executed, his will be done, and that Mary will become the first woman, and the first mother, ever put to death by the United States Government. A dubious distinction, and he fights ruthlessly to earn it. Aiken fights as passionately to rescue her.

This story, though the facts have been somewhat changed or “dramatized” for the film, remains strong drama. On its own, it is a terrific historical tale, well scripted by James Solomon. The cast is first-rate and obviously deeply dedicated, and they are, all of them, very fine. Redford obviously made this movie with all his heart. The picture, economically shot, has a grim, dusty look, and, for me, it also looks a little too TV-historical-dramatic-ish. But the story and the actors are so good, it doesn’t matter.

A confession now of personal predilection. I am against capital punishment, and I believe that as long as one innocent person was unjustly executed and falsely branded forever a murderer — and we know now, thanks to advances in DNA testing, that there have been many — legal execution is an abomination, and should be replaced by any fair government with life imprisonment without possibility of parole, along with enforced reparations to the victims.

I say this knowing that if a loved one of mine were killed intentionally, I would want to kill the monster that did it with my own hands, especially if the evidence seemed certain. But I would be wrong.

Perhaps only a part of the movie’s tale is true, though, according to the (disputed) record, it’s probably a large part. So, Damn you to hell, Edwin Stanton, and even if there isn’t a hell, and you managed to slip away unpunished — you have been thoroughly well indicted, prosecuted and damned here, in The Conspirator, by Redford, by Solomon, and by all the film artists and actors who made this film with them, especially Robin Wright, James McAvoy and Kevin Kline.

We all know, or we all should know, that Mary Surratt was hanged. There was no Juror Number Eight to save her, and no universal director and scripter like Sidney Lumet and Reginald Rose to guide his arguments and to change everyone‘s minds. God watched apparently, but did nothing, for the time being.

But there is an interesting coda to the events, and it’s shown here before the end-titles: an interesting third act for Fredrick Aiken, and one especially ironic in the light of Robert Redford‘s previous career in movies. I will leave you to discover it for yourselves.

Extras: Commentary with Robert Redford; Historical and “Making Of” Documentaries; 10 Featurettes; Introduction to American Film Theatre; Trailers.


Jane Eyre” Three Stars.
U.K.-U.S.: Cary Fukunaga, 2011 (Universal)

In college, as an English major, roaming happily among the great green fields of the literary Gods, I made some questionable choices. For example, I tended to ignore the more successful and popular Bronte sister (in her day), hard-working Charlotte, of Jane Eyre, in favor of Wild Emily, author of that sacred, romantic text of so many lovers of 19th century British novels, Wuthering Heights. I adored Emily, but Charlotte deserved better of me.

Jane Eyre was almost as famous as Wuthering Heights, and revered too (if not quite as much). And, important for a lovie-lover, it has been filmed almost as often as Emily’s stormy tale — which boasts in its filmography, the classic 1939 William Wyler-Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Cathy (if only Cathy had been Vivien Leigh), and a 1953 Mexican adaptation by Luis Bunuel called Abismos de Pasion. Most notable of the screen Eyres, of course, is the classy 1944 film, with Joan Fontaine as Jane, and Orson Welles, brooding his best, as Rochester — and the beautiful child Elizabeth Taylor as the little girl who dies at school. Some say Welles may have “helped” Robert Stevenson — a descendant of Robert Louis Stevenson, and the man who later made Mary Poppins for Disney — with the direction. Maybe.

The story is a classic one, a model for dozens of Gothic-influenced novels about threatened ladies, teachers, guests, young wives or whatever, come to huge mysterious houses — stories of which the most famous is Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca, in which Joan Fontaine played Olivier’s nameless young wife for Alfred Hitchcock, four years before her Jane Eyre. In the plot that would become a paradigm, Jane, badly treated at her nasty aunt’s (Sally Hawkins) house, goes to boarding school, suffers there and eventually becomes a governess to the children of Mr. Edward Rochester, a strange man with a strange unspoken history — and a secret that will burst explosively into the light at the least appropriate moment. The novel “Jane Eyre” is an romance, but one with a heroine with brains: a novel that treasures feeling and intellect a bit more than beauty.

Now comes this new British adaptation by director Cary Fukunaga (who made the fine immigration drama, Sin Nombre) and scenarist Moira Buffni, with Mia Wasikowska (Alice) as Jane and Michael Fassbender (Hunger) as Rochester. Of course, that throws Bronte’s main idea out the window, since Charlotte wanted to write a romantic novel about lovers who were physically plain (Jane) or unattractive (Rochester), and Wasikowska and Fassbender are a couple of knockouts. So too, of course, were Joan Fontaine and — in his younger , slimmer days — Orson Welles. And so have been most of the actors and actresses who’ve played the parts.

It’s in many ways, a faithful movie, one that at least respects its source. But how can you really sympathize in the ways Charlotte wanted us to sympathize with Jane — to admire not her looks, but her brains, her pluck, her persistence, her bravery — when she’s played by a stunner like Wasikowksa, however disguised, however made “mousey?” Poetic license, I guess.

The whole film in fact has that Gothic, stylish beauty that many British versions of the 19th century classics strive for. Irony of ironies, the story of Jane is there, in all its almost Dickensian travail. (Charlotte though was an admirer more of ironic William Thackeray.) And the whole mood and style of Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre reminds you of the feverish romantic furies of Emily’s Wuthering Heights, of love in a windstorm, love beyond death, love that hurls you into a torrent.

It’s a good movie though. Sometimes it almost hypnotizes you with all that windy romance. And, of course, another adaptation of any Bronte sister at all, even of the usually ignored Anne (“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall“) is always welcome by me. We need all the good, and great, writing in movies that we can get.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon