Tag Archives: C+

LIZZIE

Producer: Naomi Despres, Liz Destro and Chloe Sevigny
Director: Craig William Macneill
Writer: Bryce Kass
Stars: Chloe Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Kim Dickens and Denis O'Hare
Studio: Roadside Attractoions

C+

According to the old tune, Lizzie Borden wielded eighty-one whacks of the axe to dispose of her father and stepmother back in 1892, but in the years since people have taken far more stabs than that at explaining whether she did the deed, and if so why and how. The number of books and articles on the case is huge—there are even operas on the subject—and though screen portrayals of the events are fewer, plenty are out there—the 1975 ABC telefilm “The Legend of Lizzie Borden,” with Elizabeth Montgomery, and the 2014 Lifetime one, “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax,” with Christina Ricci, being the most notable.

The newest is this moody period drama directed by Craig William Macneill from a script by Bryce Kass and starring Chloë Sevigny, who also produced, as Lizzie. And to make a long story short, the answer proposed by the makers of this slow-moving picture is that she did it all right, primarily for money but also out of a proto-feminist motive.

As depicted here, Lizzie is a strong woman under the thumb of her imperious, penny-pinching father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) while her more submissive older sister Emma (Kim Dickens) and dour stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) look on disapprovingly as she exhibits a rebellious streak. Lizzie also suffers from seizures, whether brought on by stress, illness or a combination of the two is unclear—something that, along with her personality, inhibits her marital prospects.

Lizzie and Emma are theoretically in line to receive a significant inheritance in the event of Andrew’s death, but that is being threatened by the chance that their father might prefer to leave his fortune to his ne’er-do-well brother John (Denis O’Hare), simply because he’s a man. Lizzie is determined that should not happen.

The situation is further complicated by the arrival in the Borden household of a new maid, or “Maggie,” named Bridget (Kristen Stewart)—mousy and frightened, but pretty too. Lizzie treats her as a friend, not merely because of her naturally progressive attitudes, but because she finds the young thing attractive. Unfortunately, Andrew considers it his right to bed her, and creeps into her little room with unseemly regularity, though Abby seems willing to tolerate it for the sake of domestic harmony. Lizzie is less so, especially after the two women have begun to enjoy one another’s intimate company.

That sets the stage for the murders. Screenwriter Kass adopts the theory—which was dramatized effectively in the Montgomery picture—that Lizzie committed the crimes in the nude, to prevent any blood from being found on her clothes, and washed carefully after each of them. The addition of the lesbian subtext leads him, however, to add some changes to the scenario that, in reality, make it rather less plausible.

That female-on-female aspect (which, in reality, seems a bit of a stretch, given the context of the time, the layout of the household, and the later history of the principals), and the presumption of Andrew’s unwanted nocturnal visitations, are the major innovations that “Lizzie” makes to the fundamental Borden tale. Other than those, it covers the basic contours of the story decently enough, including the trial that follows the killings; but the pace, as Macneill and editor Abbi Jutkowitz choreograph matters, is extremely slow, at times almost glacial. On the other hand, from the purely visual perspective, the film is impressive for one on a modest budget: Elizabeth J. Jones’s production design and Natalie O’Brien’s costumes are convincingly in period, and Noah Greenberg’s cinematography endows the images with a slightly woozy look that’s quite appropriate.

Against this background, Sevigny gives a committed performance in the title role, embodying the simmering anger that lies beneath the prim exterior demanded of the era but occasionally explodes in furious rants and—if Kass has gotten things right—emotional outpourings and violence. Stewart has the less showy role, and never seems to get a complete handle on a character, but it’s doubtful anyone else could have done better. Sheridan is convincing as a nineteenth-century male chauvinist pig, and O’Hare oozes greed, while Shaw gives a bit of nuance to Abby, who’s usually portrayed as a nasty old hag; here she seems as unsettled by her husband’s nocturnal foibles as Lizzie, but unable to deal with him. Dickens, on the other hand, is curiously anonymous.

“Lizzie” adds a new twist to the Borden murder mystery, as well as another fine portrayal of its presumed guilty but acquitted perpetrator; but that’s not enough to enliven the old story sufficiently to make it truly compelling.

THE LITTLE STRANGER

Producer: Gail Egan, Andrea Calderwood and Ed Guiney
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Writer: Lucinda Coxon
Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill, Oliver Zetterstrom, Kate Phillips, Dixie Egerickx and Josh Dylan
Studio: Focus Features

C+

Lenny Abrahamson’s follow-up to his moodily claustrophobic, Oscar-nominated “Room” is set in a larger space than that movie’s hostage shed—a rambling gothic estate in post-war Warwickshire—but the characters in “The Little Stranger,” adapted from a 2009 novel by Sarah Waters, are no less trapped than those in the earlier film. Whether you will care about them nearly as much is questionable, though.

Those virtually imprisoned in Hundreds Hall, as the crumbling mansion is called, are the surviving members of the Ayres family, hard-edged matriarch Angela (Charlotte Rampling), who still mourns the loss of her younger daughter Susan (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), nicknamed Suki, years ago from illness, and her two surviving children—Roderick (Will Roderick), who has returned from the war with a disfigured face and an injured leg, and Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who spends a good deal of her time walking through the woods with her faithful dog and tends to the household needs as best she can, scowling over the sad reality of her situation. The new Labour government is taxing what little remains of the old family fortune, and Roderick, a self-pitying recluse, is preparing to sell off a part of the land to developers who plan to put up small houses for lesser folk.

But the Hall has another victim, Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a physician from the nearby village whose parents worked themselves to death to pay for his education and who has now returned to serve the populace. A prim, fastidious man, supremely confident in his knowledge and skill, he has been obsessed with the place since he visited it for a village fête back in 1919; his mother had worked there as a maid, and her old colleagues had invited her and the boy (played in flashbacks by Oliver Zetterström) inside. He had wandered through the house enthralled by its opulence, and even broke off a wooden ornament as a souvenir—an act his mother had been furious over.

Now Faraday is called in to treat Betty (Liv Hall), the sole maid left in the place. The young girl feigns illness because she’s frightened of the place and hopes to get fired so she can leave. It’s the entrée he’s always longed for, and he insinuates himself into the family, offering to treat Roderick’s leg with a contraption he’s designed and commiserating with Caroline, whom he’s interested in from the start. When he’s invited to one of the rare parties thrown by Mrs. Ayres for their neighbors, he’s called into service not only to persuade Roderick to come down from his room, but to tend to a young guest, a girl (Dixie Egerickx) badly mauled by Caroline’s dog, which he then has to put down.

It’s the first act of violence that occurs in the house, but not the last. As Faraday becomes a fixture at Hundreds Hall, a companion for Caroline and eventually—he hopes—her husband, others will follow. Roderick will eventually be taken off to a mental institution, and after his departure Mrs. Ayres discovers scrawls in the woodwork, the capital letter “S” endlessly repeated and occasionally Suki’s name as well. The bells in the kitchen, installed years before to summon servants to various rooms of the house, begin to ring of their own accord.

Is the house haunted by the spirit of Suki, or a poltergeist? It certainly seems so, though rationalist Faraday rejects such explanations. Against Caroline’s hopes of leaving the place, he wants nothing more than to marry her and remain, finally becoming the lord of the manor he’s always dreamed of being, though the manor is but a fading reflection of what it was in his childish memory. Or does the real malignancy arise from the longing that’s colored his entire life, to break the British class barrier that’s kept him in a subservient position and always must—his wish, if you’ll excuse the pun, to put on Ayres, as it were?

“The Little Stranger” has been lovingly assembled from a visual standpoint. Simon Elliott’s production design is outstanding, creating an interior for the hall that’s detailed in its faded elegance and near-tactile mustiness, and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland uses light and shade to render it, and the exteriors, in burnished widescreen images. Steven Noble’s costumes contribute expertly to the period look. Editor Nathan Nugent’s stately pacing is a major factor in creating the moody, languid feel Abrahamson is after, as is Stephen Rennick’s atmospheric score.

The cast also falls in with the directorial vision. Gleeson is all stiff precision, his ramrod posture and slightly pursed lips embodying in small gestures Faraday’s pretensions. Rampling is her customary imperious self, and Poulter captures Roderick’s depression at his woeful physical and emotional condition. Most importantly, perhaps, Wilson, with her masculine bearing and sorrowful smile, embodies the sad fall of the house of Ayres.

For all its virtues, however, “The Little Stranger” fails to match the best of the films it’s emulating, like Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” (based on Shirley Jackson) or Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents” (based on Henry James). It’s admirable that Abrahamson mostly eschews gore, for example, but he seems almost ashamed of the story’s scary moments, which he stages so discreetly that they pretty much fail to register. (A sequence of a bloody body is ineptly choreographed, italicizing the director’s dislike of explicit violence, but others of poltergeist activity are also blandly conceived.)

In fact, what the film actually appears to be about is spectral activity of a more curious sort. Yes, it might be Suki, or some other poltergeist, who’s responsible for what’s happening at Hundreds Hall. But what Waters and Abrahamson seem to be suggesting is that it’s Faraday who’s the stranger (and a little one, when he first enters the house) who is subconsciously causing the eerie goings-on through his obsession with climbing the social ladder; the malignant force would thus be a version of the Id Monster from “Forbidden Planet” (making Faraday’s offhanded comment at one point that he’s not a psychiatric doctor a sign of his obliviousness to the truth).

Of course, Abrahamson’s film is content to close things on an ambiguous note, and thus leave most viewers perplexed, bored, and perhaps even angry. One can admire all the craftsmanship that went into “The Little Stranger,” but in the end its impact is as wispy as a ghost.