As an actor Robert Redford was always more of a movie star than a hard-core artist. That said, he gave some very fine performances, usually as flawed men who could not live up to their potential.
He was superb in the western “Jeremiah Johnson,” and equally fine in the popular love story “The Way We Were.” But he’s never really comfortable in his skin as a major star, and sought to be taken seriously behind the camera, turning his eye on directing. In 1980 he became the first of the major modern actors win win an Academy Award as Best Director for “ Ordinary People,” which also won an Oscar as Best Picture, defeating the extraordinary “Raging Bull.”
It’s not surprising that good acting dominates Redford`s work as a director, be it Brad Pitt, Tom Skerrit or Brenda Blythen in “A River Runs Through It,” which played here at TIFF; the exceptional “Quiz Show,” which earned Redford a second Oscar nomination for Best Director; or “The Horse Whisperer,” in which he himself starred for the first time under his own direction. Being an actor causes Redford to pay particular attention to the performances in his films, and his care and meticulous work with the actors make him a beloved mentor to the actors who work with him.
His new film, which arrived here looking for distribution, “The Conspirator,” is based on the true story of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the mother of John Surratt who was suspected of working with John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. A devoted mother and known to be a sympathizer of the Confederates, Mary refuses to tell the authorities where her son was when Lincoln was murdered, making her an enemy of the state.
Eager to make a name for himself, young lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is persuaded by his mentor to taker her case, though he suspects he is doomed from the very beginning, as the public – whipped into an emotional fury — screams for blood for its dead leader. Shades of 9/11, Mary becomes the target of their wrath.
Robin Wright (she has dropped Penn) has always been a fine actress, but she has always seemed to underperform, or lived in the shadow of her gifted husband, Sean Penn, from whom she is seeking divorce. Here she anchors the film with a strong performance in which her loyalty and dignity shine through. The leader of the nation has fallen, felled by an assassin`s bullet, but she will not give up her son to an angry mob, at whose hands he will surely be killed.
It`s a powerful, quiet performance from Wright, the kind we have always suspected her of being capable of giving.
McAvoy is excellent as young Aiken, seeing in his client a stubborness that will be her, and his downfall. And though troubled and often angered by it, he also develops a growing admiration for the woman, who is possessed of a fierce loyalty, the likes of which he has never encounterd.
The film is handsomely mounted, the re-creation of the period perfect, and though there are obvious parallels to 9/11, the film stands on its own as a statement of a potential injustice.
As for Redford himself, looking younger than his 74 years, he was strangely sedate while here in Toronto. Perhaps the job of looking for distribution to his film is new to him — it must be very difficult for him to move from superstar status to having a film he hopes will sell. Indeed, there were times during his visit that he seemed distracted, his mind elsewhere — unlike Eastwood who was focused on whatever he was doing at the time, and enjoying every minute of it.
Perhaps that is the great difference between the two, Redford has always demanded his privacy, something stars are not easily afforded, while Eastwood, quietly went about achieving his privacy.
And while his film did not explode out of Toronto, it leaves here with the sort of gentle buzz the makers of the picture will like.