The story of the notorious 19th century murder suspect, Lizzie Borden, has been adapted several times over the years, as a stage play, several films, and even a feminist Goth-rock musical (not to mention the children’s rhyme, which cold-blooded little brats chanted at play for decades), but not always with complete success. Somehow, this odd tale of a reclusive New England spinster unexpectedly running amok and (allegedly) chopping her parents to bits with an axe tends to inspire the production of scripts, but not necessarily either creative genius or thoughtful insight into the subject matter. Sadly, this latest effort, directed by Craig William MacNeill, is more of the same. It is cast well above its expectations, with talented and versatile indie queen Chloë Sevigny as the title character; Kristen Stewart as the household’s maid, Bridget, Lizzie’s confidant and possible co-conspirator; veteran stage and screen actress Fiona Shaw as Lizzie’s stepmother; and popular television actor Jamey Sheridan as her ill-fated father, Andrew Borden. Excellent acting by all, and an interesting and promising approach to the story are unfortunately balanced by fatal flaws in the overall retelling, combined with some glaring inconsistencies and anachronisms, which combine against the film’s success.
Since the thoughts and motives of Lizzie Borden remain a closed book, speculated over but never revealed to the public even indirectly, her intentions are open to interpretation. This fact, combined with real and rumoured examples of repression, abuse, and threats against Lizzie by her father, and of animosity between Lizzie and her stepmother, provides ample material for a writer. The first half of the film nicely establishes the Borden family dynamics and the uncomfortable circumstances Lizzie found herself in, as an unmarried daughter and therefore a burden on the household, who was moreover something of an invalid who experienced occasional seizures, and whose perceived unfeminine manner and opinions repelled her father. The suffocating atmosphere of Lizzie’s increasingly narrow existence and the unspoken threats of being institutionalised or disinherited provides context for the coming murders. Lizzie’s growing desperation and anger come across clearly in the early scenes, as does the loneliness that leads to a close and passionate relationship – based on unconfirmed but plausible suppositions about the real Lizzie Borden – with the Bordens’ maid, Bridget, an equally unhappy woman in an equally untenable situation.From here, however, the storyline strays, becoming increasingly patchy, and less and less plausible, as it covers the murder plot, the actual dual murders, and the legal aftermath. The plot disintegrated to the extent that its star, Chloë Sevigny, publicly expressed her disappointment in the finished product. In an interview during Lizzie’s Sundance premiere, Sevigny, who had initially worked with writer Bruce Kass to develop the script, explained that she had signed on to what she saw as an entirely new look at the infamous Lizzie Borden, and expected to be “a rousing, smash-the-patriarchy piece.” Unfortunately, this was when Lizzie was intended as a mini-series for HBO. When HBO abandoned the project years into development, the cast chose to stay on, new director Craig MacNeill was hired to replace the original choice of Pieter Van Hees, and screenwriter Bryce Kass began re-adapting the script to suit a feature film. According to Sevigny, creative differences developed immediately, due to MacNeill’s decision to cut scenes which Sevigny saw as essential to character development. As she expressed it in a HuffPost interview, “There was more to the relationships that made them more complicated, and also then informed why Lizzie [commits the murders].” The film does, certainly, become weaker as the film progresses in explaining how the family situation and Lizzie’s state of mind ultimately led to violence, and fails badly at developing the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget, which becomes crucial to the murder yet remains confusing and unclear. Whether because of the editing or simply because of a weak script, the film does fall flat in its central task of establishing what would make a reserved and sheltered young lady resort to violent homicide.
The homicide itself, which apparently survived editing, is striking and forceful, in spite of several surprising choices (including nude scenes some might find gratuitous) not based on the original post-mortem investigation. Sevigny described her admiration of the “cathartic and sexual” nature of the murder scene, which certainly comes across, although it might have had more impact if the emotional turmoil of the key characters had been developed more carefully. It is during the final act, Lizzie’s arrest, the murder investigation, and her trial, that the story abandons all connection to the real event – to the extent that the anachronisms can’t help but be noticed by the audience. The script has several forensic specialists making pronouncements based on tests which did not exist in 1892, when the murders occurred. Lizzie herself taking elaborate precautions to avoid detection by such tests, as though they not only existed but would have been familiar to a sheltered and unworldly woman of the time, is not only inconsistent but contradicts the character established so far, and changes her abruptly from a cornered victim lashing out in desperation, to a cunning and ruthless (and strangely well-informed) villain from a modern serial murder plot. The look of a forensic science television programme, incongruously set in the late 19th century, does nothing to help the lagging finale.
The film is not terrible by any means. The acting of the talented ensemble cast, an interesting premise, and a generally good pre-editing script ensure that it has some excellent moments. It’s another unfortunate case of a good concept and great acting, badly managed, resulting in a promising but, in the end, mediocre movie.