Home > Reviews > THE CONSPIRATOR – Mark Isham

THE CONSPIRATOR – Mark Isham

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

For many years I had assumed – entirely incorrectly, as it turns out – that the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth was a one-man show committed by a single opportunist. In actual fact, the events of April 14, 1865, were much more far reaching, in so much as three other co-conspirators attempted to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward on the same evening, but only Booth was successful in dispatching his quarry. Booth was killed by soldiers a few days later, but two of the other conspirators – Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt – were captured and tried. The fourth conspirator, John Surratt, was not caught and so John’s mother, Mary Surratt, was tried in his place, accused of allowing her guesthouse to be used as the base for the assassination plot to be conceived. Robert Redford’s latest film, The Conspirator, looks at these events with fresh eyes, concentrating specifically on the relationship between Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) and Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), the young attorney assigned to defend her. The film also stars Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Justin Long, Evan Rachel Wood and Danny Huston, and features an excellent dramatic score by Mark Isham.

The Conspirator marks the fourth time that Robert Redford and Mark Isham have collaborated as director and composer, following A River Runs Through It, Quiz Show and Lions for Lambs. Isham has written some of the best straightforward dramatic music of his career for Redford’s films, and The Conspirator continues the trend. A generally attractive, but overwhelmingly solemn score, The Conspirator treats the important story of Abraham Lincoln’s death with the sense of drama it deserves, while providing a solid emotional core for Mary Surratt and her desperate plight. Performed by the National Orchestra in Prague and featuring cello solos by Zöe Keating, the score is predominantly string based, with large sections of brooding – but still tonally appealing – underscore that regularly rises to reach emotional high spots.

While an hour’s worth of shifting string tones and serious chord progressions may not strike some listeners as being especially exciting, The Conspirator actually has a number of moments of significant merit. The noble horn phrases at the end of the opening cue, “A Genuine War Hero”, reoccur throughout the score as a subtle leitmotif for Aiken and his personal convictions, pegging him as a man of honor and steadfast truthfulness. They begin to appear more prominently during the second half of the score, especially for the scenes in which Aiken cross-examines witnesses and becomes increasingly frustrated by the sanctimoniousness of those in charge of the courtroom. “In the Matter of Mary Surratt” offers a mash-up of both Aiken’s noble horn theme and the Conspirator motif as the two parties meet in the courtroom for the first time.

The action and suspense sequences in cues such as “A Traitorous and Murderous Conspiracy” and “Fools Like You” run the gamut, from nervous percussive rumbling to energetic ostinatos with raging string lines, rattling snares and all manner of orchestral carnage. Aggressive string and percussion writing (as well as a very cool fading brass effect) anchors the upbeat “One Bullet, But Not One Man”, giving the cue and Aiken’s task a sense of purpose and forward motion. A twisted, detuned violin note acts as a recurring marker for the conspirators themselves, both for when their actions are taking place, or when they are subsequently being investigated or discussed; cues such as “Into Position”, “The Boarding House”, “Second Floor on the Left” and “Aiken Incriminates John” feature this element prominently, giving the score a little sense of mystery.

The soaring, dramatically weighty string-based main theme first appears in the fourth cue, “April 14, 1865”, adding a palpable sense of tragedy to the senselessness of Lincoln’s death; later, Isham cleverly mirrors the fate suffered by the President with the equally pointless and unjust fate of Mary Surratt, restating the same theme during “Whose Side Are You On?”, “Anna Goes to Court”, and especially the conclusive, devastating “In Times of War, The Law Falls Silent, Part 2”, making the finale of both film and score extremely poignant. Isham’s music for the finale of The Conspirator – comprising “13 Steps”, “Peace At Last” and the “End Credits”, actually reminds me a little of the similarly dark and sweeping music Danny Elfman wrote for the finale of Sommersby, which is a compliment indeed. The six-minute “End Credits” piece is absolutely superb, a powerful recapitulation of all the score’s main themes, finishing with a sweeping statement of the main theme. When Isham is in this frame of mind, he is one of the best film composers in the business.

The Conspirator is the second score release on Isham’s own label, MIM Records, and as was the case with The Mechanic earlier this year, Isham has made available three different versions of the score to collectors: the standard release contains 44 minutes of music highlighting 16 tracks from Isham’s score; the Complete Collector’s Edition (the version being reviewed here) includes all 64 minutes from the movie in 38 tracks in chronological order, including cues not used in the final version of the film. The two disc limited edition, which is exclusively available through Isham’s online store, includes both editions of the score in a special set signed by Mark Isham himself. I must applaud Isham for taking the time and trouble to present his work in such a consumer-friendly way; long may it continue.

While The Conspirator may prove to be too dramatic, dark and understated for those with more lively tastes, I found the score to be a very rewarding listen, especially during those cues where the powerful main theme rises to the fore. Isham’s work in this genre has always been good, and his collaborations with Robert Redford have generally been very fruitful – such is the case here. It’s an important score for a film which makes some serious and worthwhile points, especially considering the current political climate, and comes recommended for fans of the composer’s work in this style.

Rating: ****

Buy the Conspirator soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • A Genuine War Hero (2:23)
  • Into Position (1:53)
  • A Traitorous and Murderous Conspiracy (2:43)
  • April 14, 1865 (2:51)
  • One Bullet, But Not One Man (2:58)
  • The Conspirators (1:39)
  • To Uphold One’s Oath (1:54)
  • The Boarding House (1:35)
  • Second Floor, On the Left (2:40)
  • In the Matter of Mary Surratt (1:13)
  • If You Can Prove She’s Guilty… (1:13)
  • Fools Like You (1:49)
  • Anna (2:10)
  • Sic Semper Tyrannis (0:27)
  • Did You Hire This Man? (1:15)
  • Mary is Sick (0:44)
  • Who’s Side Are You On? (0:48)
  • Lloyd Falters (0:53)
  • Whiskey Pickup (0:45)
  • Aiken Incriminates John (1:01)
  • Aiken Antagonizes Lloyd (1:07)
  • A Betraying Witness (1:21)
  • Conduct Unbecoming (1:51)
  • You Need to Tread Lightly (1:06)
  • Anna Goes to Court (1:29)
  • Anna Pleads to See Her Mother (2:04)
  • Our Laws Are Written Here (0:50)
  • Another Casualty of War (0:52)
  • There Should Only Be Three (2:01)
  • I Will Not Abandon Her (0:55)
  • In Times of War, The Law Falls Silent, Part 1 (1:59)
  • In Times of War, The Law Falls Silent, Part 2 (2:19)
  • 13 Steps (1:56)
  • Peace at Last (1:50)
  • End Credits (6:07)
  • A Genuine War Hero [Alternate] (1:27)
  • One Bullet, But Not One Man [Alternate] (0:49)
  • Peace at Last [Alternate] (1:51)

Running Time: 64 minutes 48 seconds

MIM Records MIM-004 (2011)

Music composed by Mark Isham. Conducted by Adam Klemens. Performed by The Czech National Orchestra. Orchestrations by Brad Dechter and Peter Boyer. Featured musical soloist Zoë Keating. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Curtis Roush. Album produced by Mark Isham.

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