Lizzie: Feminist Spin on Classic Murder Tale Answers Some Questions, Raises Others

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B

The story of Lizzie Borden, presumed hatchet murderer of her father and stepmother in Massachusetts in 1892, gets a modern female-emancipation spin in Lizzie. Chloë Sevigny (as Lizzie) and Kristen Stewart (as the family’s Irish maid Bridget Sullivan) star as lovers pushed over the edge by a powerful predatory man.

Chloë Sevigny as infamous Lizzie Borden.

Chloë Sevigny as infamous Lizzie Borden.

Something of an intriguing curio (the first feature film about a subject treated in song, poem, television and theatre), Lizzie has some memorable pluses and significant minuses. On the positive side, it features bold performances, especially from Sevigny (also executive producer) as the damaged but haughty Lizzie, and Noah Greenberg’s dreamy ambient-lit cinematography, which places the characters like flies trapped in amber. On the negative, it’s hampered by a stilted, on-the-nose script, a clangorous horror-movie score and Craig William Macneill’s third-act direction which can accurately be described as “choppy.”

Following the lead of crime novelist Ed McBain (a.k.a. Evan Hunter) in his 1984 historical novel, Bryce Kass’s script conjectures that the exposure of a lesbian relationship between the 32-year-old Borden and the family’s 25-year-old maid Bridget led to the murders. An early preview of the crime day sees Lizzie, having apparently “discovered” her father’s corpse, instructing Bridget to fetch the police. We then flash back to the preceding months leading to the violence.

Lizzie and her sister Emma (Kim Dickens) are, in the parlance of the day, spinsters, who share a rambling mansion with their father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and their stepmother, Abby (Fiona Shaw). Early scenes establish that Lizzie is proud and defiant — shoulders back, chin up, ready to confront her insulting and over-controlling father. She has epileptic seizures, a social embarrassment compounded by being the child of an unpopular, skinflint father. Andrew, along with abusing his tenant farmers, is also quietly raping the Bridget in her loft at night. Did he do the same thing to his daughters? We’re encouraged to speculate.

But there are other motives. Although the Bordens are wealthy —Andrew is a banker and landlord — the sisters face a bleak financial future because their father seems intent on willing his fortune to their creepy uncle John (Dennis O’Hare). Andrew keeps getting mysterious notes with death threats; are they from one of his tenants or from inside the house?

Despite her burdens, Lizzie is a modern democratic type who befriends the new maid and begins teaching her to read. That allows one-on-one time together where touching hands leads to brushing cheeks to gentle nuzzling to the next step. Stewart evokes sympathy — she is furtive, tongue-tied, eyes roaming, like a bothered animal — but Sevigny seems to grow progressively mute and inscrutable.

The film carefully steers around erotic exploitation though there is, at the conclusion, some emphatic nudity. To be specific, the women strip to kill, which has some practical value (how to avoid blood splatters on pinafores) but feels symbolic: Warrior feminists, in the raw, avenging themselves on the patriarchy, with a well-coordinated plan. That makes the gruesome climax feel less cathartic than didactic: How to put an end to your oppressor? You might even call it a life hack.

The end titles explain that Borden was not convicted because no one believed a woman of her social status would do something so heinous. She sure showed them, the movie seems to say, though it says it with insufficient enthusiasm to feel like an unqualified endorsement.

Lizzie. Directed by Craig William Macneill. Written by Bryce Kass. Starring Chlöe Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Fiona Shaw, Jamey Sheridan, and Kim Dickens. Opens September 28 at Toronto’s Canada Square; October 5 in Vancouver and Montreal and throughout the fall in other cities.