There’s a lot to be hopeful about from a film like Lizzie. You’ve got a story that’s ripe for reimagining, a tale made most mythic by a children’s rhyme:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.
The devil is in the details, as it were, and Craig William Macneill’s film based on a script by Bryce Kass tries to both humanize and contextualize the events that led up to the brutal murders as well as providing insight into the harrowing circumstances that precipitated such dire action.
We begin with the discoveries of the smashed bodies and calls for assistance, then going back in time to see the events leading up to the murders. We meet Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny), a tough-minded, independent woman bristling against the control of her father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan). Along with her quiet older sister Emma (Kim Dickens) and mother Abby (Fiona Shaw) there is the arrival of a new housekeeper named Bridget (Kristen Stewart) that seems to upend whatever tenuous balance was in place.
Lizzle and Bridget’s fondness grows just as unsolicited interest from the patriarch grows towards the maid, leading to a confrontation that at first is subtle but grows increasingly fractious. Add in Uncle John (Denis O’Hare) who is called in to aide the family in case any of the disgruntled enemies of the wealthy Andrew make good on their threats and you have a web of family dynamics at play, each seemingly intent in undermining the other.
With all these pieces in place Macneill’s work proceeds fairly straightforwardly. Any ribald connection is less a shock than perhaps may be intended, and the narrative subterfuge that attempts to maintain some mystery doesn’t quite work out. It’s all fine if a bit pedestrian, and moments that should have real bite seem almost timid, as if the film might well have worked better as fully on melodrama throwing caution to the wind.
Evidence of this abandon can be seen in the film’s most memorable sequence, the murders themselves. Since the entire narrative revolves around this savagery it’s hardly a surprise that this is the most effective moment of the work, yet even with the expectation that witnessing the carnage would be a visceral event doesn’t do justice to just how wild this small section of the film is. If this work is to be remembered at all it will be for the performances of the main actors in this scene and how its collision of passion, malice and retribution collide into a symphonic blast of gothic violence.
After this whirlwind the film continues to limp along, feeling more denouement than truly capitalizing on the murder sequence. Even the rhyme got rid of the before-and-after elements, so it’s not inconceivable that the very elements added to flesh out this story feel less viscerally compelling than the central events that made Lizzie such a famed character.
Sevigny is nearly always the best thing that she’s a part of, and given that she helped guide this project for many years her accomplishment in bringing the work to screen and the intensity of her role are both to be applauded. Stewart’s Irish lilt isn’t too distracting, and she again shows her legitimate skill at elevating those she performs with, making a lot with little glances and asides that give a sense of a woman trapped by class, circumstance and the chaos of her life.
The other characters lack any form of subtlety – there could very well be mustache twirling villainy, if the film wished to veer to the full on operatic – which does seem to downplay any sense of suspense or empathy. O’Hare seems to make the most out of what’s really a two-dimensional role, seemingly perfectly believable in his scandalous self-serving behaviour.
In the end, however, we’re treated to some fine moments between Lizze and Bridget, a bombastic murder sequence that stands above all else, and the rest a jumble of parlour drama and period piece breadcrumbs.
Lizzie may not quite succeed as a rescuing of the dignity of Lizzie’s actions viewed through a modern feminist lens, but it’s still often an engaging, if overwrought, tale. For those willing to stick it out until the bravura sequence they may well be sufficiently rewarded, yet in the light of day it’s difficult to see the film as an unbridled success.