On the 4th August 1892, the town of Fall River, Massachusetts, had its course of history changed forever. The bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden, were found and suspicion quickly fell on Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie. Borden was tried and acquitted of the murders, as the jury could not believe a woman of Lizzie’s social reputation could commit such hideous acts. Borden and her association with the murders has remained a topic in American popular culture mythology into the 21st century, so it is hardly a surprise that films are still being made regarding one of America’s most infamous cases.
Lizzie is the latest film to cover the Borden case, and is directed by Craig William Macneill. It’s a solid attempt to piece together the mystery, but the film would have benefited from a shorter run time as it begins to lose its way towards the end.
The film’s main leads Chloë Sevigny, and Kristen Stewart, help keep the film going when it begins to drag and Sevigny’s portrayal of Lizzie is truly chilling to watch as this woman becomes more and more unhinged. It is an absolute delight to watch both these great actresses share the screen together.
Lizzie Borden (Sevigny) resides with her domineering father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan); stepmother, Abby (Fiona Shaw), and elder sister, Emma (Kim Dickens). While the Borden family are prominent members of the community, Lizzie’s day-to-day life is under the strict domain of her father. Lizzie is very much an outsider in society, rebelling by going out by herself and refusing to play the role that her father wants her to.
One day, an Irish immigrant, Bridget Sullivan (Stewart), moves in to the Borden residence to work as a servant. That night, Lizzie attends an opera and has a seizure during the performance. After she recovers, she and Bridget quickly form a close bond as Lizzie attempts to give the illiterate Bridget a formal education. Although, this relationship begins the blossom into something a lot more stronger.
On several occasions, the household is disrupted by trespassers and written threats, which Lizzie believes are connected to her father’s recent acquisition of land. Lizzie overhears a discussion between her father and her uncle John (a delightful Denis O’Hare), where Andrew declares that his estate be bestowed to Abby rather than his daughter. Could this be the real reason behind the mysterious deaths of Lizzie’s father and Stepmother. Or could Bridget be the real killer, after seek revenge on Andrew who routinely rapes her?
The film’s saving graces are Sevigny and Stewart, who are given a chance to sink their teeth into a meaty role and examine these two infamous women. Sevigny’s Lizzie Borden is a woman on the brink of collapse, struggling to contain her frustration as she butts heads with her father and her uncle. It is hard not to be moved by Sevigny’s performance, especially when she shares a tender moment with Stewart’s Bridget in her barn as they embrace for the first time.
As we already know the sad fate of these characters, it makes for heartbreaking viewing. The film works best when Sevigny and Stewart share the screen, but when Sevigny interacts with Sheridan and Shaw, the film becomes slightly too melodramatic and stale.
The male characters seem so loathsome and unpleasant that they come across as comical and like a pantomime villain. O’Hara and Sheridan’s performances should have been reeled back and controlled a little more as they seem rather over-the-top.
Shaw’s evil stepmother feels like its stepped out of a Disney film, and as a result the interactions between Lizzie and Abby seem a little clichéd to watch. It is also worth mentioning that Stewart’s accent is also quite patchy in places, and at some points it comes across as quite noticeable.
Despite its slowness, and the grumbles regarding performances, Lizzie is a beautiful film to watch. Noah Greenberg’s cinematography is splendid and the way the camera pans or tracks across the Borden household is unsettling. The film feels claustrophobic, with many scenes taking place inside the house. It is a breath of fresh air when Lizzie ventures outside the house, but soon her freedom is taken away and we are back behind closed doors, deprived of sunlight.
The film’s nudity towards the end feels a little unnecessary and perhaps the film would have benefited from being directed by a female filmmaker; who may have shot the actresses in a different and less intrusive way. The film could have been a masterclass in feminist story telling, but instead feels a little flat and too self aware. The violence is purely for shock value and the film seems like it should be above all that.
Overall, Lizzie is a decent film; but it takes a long time to get to the juicy parts. Perhaps this story is best being adapted as a mini series on Television so we can spend more time with this fascinating character.