by Peter J. O’Connell
Lizzie. Released: Sept. 2018. Runtime:106 mins. MPAA Rating: R for violence and grisly images, nudity, a scene of sexuality, and some language.
Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
This ditty, popular among schoolchildren for many years, is but one of the numerous treatments of the notorious murders of Andrew and Abby Borden that took place in Fall River, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1892. The murders, for which Andrew’s daughter (Abby’s stepdaughter) Lizzie was tried, have been featured in books (fiction and non), poems, plays, movies (on big and small screen), ballets, and operas. The grisly crime casts a continuing fascination, as we can see now in Lizzie-–presenting a somewhat speculative version of events—written by Bryce Kass, directed by Craig William Macneill, co-produced by and starring Chloe Sevigny.
The film keeps us mostly within the wealthy Borden family’s house, whose small rooms and narrow corridors convey a sense of constriction. Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) is a domineering and miserly figure. His wife (Fiona Shaw) is his passive enabler. His older daughter, Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny), a thirtyish spinster, has to argue with her father for permission to leave the property. One time she leaves without permission to attend an opera alone and undergoes a seizure of some kind. Just about her only comfort is caring for some doves in a toolshed attached to the house, where hatchets and such are kept. Her only comfort, that is, until Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) arrives.
Bridget is an Irish immigrant hired as a maid. Andrew and Abby don’t call her by her rightful name but as “Maggie,” the name that they give to any Irish maidservant. Bridget is not only denied her name, she is also denied her dignity. Andrew requires her to submit to rape regularly, a practice of which Abby is aware. Additional sleaziness is added to the faux gentility of the household by the maneuvers of John Morse, Andrew’s brother (Denis O’Hare), who is trying to assure himself the control of Andrew’s fortune if his brother should die.
After a time Lizzie and Bridget begin to take solace in each other. The director and actresses delicately develop what becomes a passionate relationship. As romance grows between the two women, rage against Andrew and Abby also grows. Eventually--particularly after Andrew beheads Lizzie’s doves and has them served as family dinner--that rage erupts, and the two lovers kill the two tyrants.
Lizzie and Bridget have taken various steps--some startling—to avoid being charged with the crime, but Lizzie does end up on trial. The attitude of the times, more than the facts, determines the verdict--with some irony involved.
The smouldering mood of Lizzie is enhanced by the cinematography of Noah Greenberg, with its muted palette and mixture of angles. The same is true of the ominously minimalist score by Jeff Rosen. Yet their work, Macneill’s capable direction, and the excellent performances of the cast, particularly, of course, Sevigny and Stewart, never quite bring that smouldering to the intensely dramatic blaze that the material would seem to call for. Nor does the vaguely suggested notion that the deeds of Lizzie and Bridget constitute an allegory of feminism’s confrontation with patriarchy and capitalism really find convincing expression.
Lizzieis well worth seeing, but it is a bit bloodless, dramatically speaking, rendition of a very bloody event.
“Footnotes” to the film: (1) There’s a small subgenre of plays and films about pairs of murderous young women. An actual case in France spawned: Jean Genet’s playThe Maids(1947); a 1975 British film of the same name starring Glenda Jackson and Susannah York; and Claude Chabrol’s 1995 film, La Ceremonie. In 1994 Lord of the Ringsdirector Peter Jackson brought forth Heavenly Creatures, based on an actual case from the 1950s in New Zealand. And Thoroughbreds, set in Connecticut, appeared on movie screens earlier this year. (2) Jon Heller Levi’s poem “Fall River Historical Museum” depicts Andrew Borden’s murder thus: “When the parlor door creaks open/to trouble his sleep, /his feather brows twitch and rise,/ but not precisely in surprise./A perfect gentleman to the last,/ ‘Finished with your mother, have you?’ he asks.” (3) Bryan Dietrich’s poem “Lizzie Borden” deals with a man who receives a visit from a resurrected Lizzie, who watches horror movies on TV with him. He starts to get nervous and switches to warmhearted movies. But: “Halfway through the second show, she kills you anyway, changes/ channels. Oh, look, she says, House of Wax.”