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.