Initially intriguing and ambiguous, Lizzie, director Craig William Macneill’s retelling of one of America’s most infamous double murders, devolves into half-hearted theorizing in an effort to wrap things up into a neat and tidy package. The 1892 murders of Fall River, Massachusetts residents Andrew and Abby Borden were shocking for a variety of reasons: the heinously gruesome nature of the crimes, the family’s status within the community, the accusation of their daughter in the murders, and the eventual acquittal of the person charged that would leave the case unsolved. Macneill (The Boy) and screenwriter Bryce Kass initially acclimate themselves quite well to the mystery surrounding the infamous Lizzie Borden case, but eventually abandon any tantalizing ambiguity in favour of simplistic explanations that are delivered with all the conviction of a free throw on an empty basketball court.
Chloë Sevigny (who also produces) stars as Lizzie Borden, an unmarried woman from a somewhat dubious family of means who still lives with her parents. Lizzie desperately wants to be a social butterfly, but her father (Jamey Sheridan) forbids it, and her aloof, but not ignorant stepmother (Fiona Shaw) can’t be bothered to care one way or the other. Lizzie finds a new friend and confidant with the arrival of Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), the Bordens’ new Irish maid. Disgusted with how her parents treat their servant, Lizzie develops a close bond with Bridget that will eventually take on romantic overtones. The romance with Bridget serves as a distraction from her emotionally abusive father and a growing rift within the family, as an underhanded uncle (Denis O’Hare) has been secretly conspiring against Lizzie and her sister, Emma (Kim Dickens), to defraud them out of their potential inheritance via anonymously penned threatening letters.
From a storytelling standpoint, Lizzie gets off to a strong enough start. It’s made clear early on that dubious land barren Andrew Borden had plenty of enemies, so an eventual list of potential murder suspects could take a lifetime to sift through. Pieces are set up in dutiful fashion for a potentially riveting whodunit, especially the crackling interplay between Lizzie and Uncle John. Macneill and Kass don’t immediately paint Lizzie as someone capable of murder, or even someone who would be pushed far enough to commit such an act. Lizzie Borden is portrayed here as a woman who constantly watches as her miserly parents stomp out any chance of her living her best life. Most audience members will know that Lizzie will likely end with two people suffering forty whacks from the wrong side of an axe, but the initial set up offers plenty of intrigue to please those who know that the accused will eventually be cleared of all charges.
It’s hard to overlook Sevigny’s miscasting in the lead, however. Not to lean too heavily on the age of an actress or cinema’s often loose interpretation of historical details, but Sevigny looks and portrays Borden as someone much older than they actually were. Sevigny is in her mid-40s and is playing someone who was in their early thirties when they were accused of murder. Not only does Sevigny look too old to play Lizzie, but the actress portrays the character as a bit of an old soul, not the personality of a repressed, sheltered woman. While Borden – given her cultural proclivities and upbringing – would carry a certain degree of emotional intelligence, Sevigny is overlooking one of the most key elements to Lizzie’s story. There’s little feeling of a woman who senses her prospects in life going up in smoke in Sevigny’s performance. The film’s quick pace is meant for a more youthful and openly passionate approach than Sevigny is capable of delivering, making one wonder what Macneill’s film could have been like had the leading actress swapped parts with Stewart’s more age appropriate housemaid. Stewart’s purposefully muted performance (save for the character’s fluctuating Irish accent) meshes nicely with Sevigny’s low-key display of passion and release, but it’s not enough to elevate the lead performer’s work in scenes where Lizzie has to appear scared or threatened. The age gap between how the character was, how it has been written, and how it has been cast is too great, no matter how great of a performer Sevigny has been in the past.
Sevigny’s awkward and out of place presence is initially hard to overcome, but Macneill still makes the most of his limited budget and some wonky material. In daylight, the Borden household looks garishly bright and white, and in evening Macneill’s adherence to the use of natural lighting casts a lot of ominous ambiance. While some of the architecture comes across as anachronistic for a family of wealthy penny pinchers, Macneill has still mounted a well designed dwelling for a story set in the late nineteenth century. For all of the script’s eventual shortcomings and the film’s curious choice of lead, Macneill is doing the best he can to keep things on an interesting enough path. It’s also not only a film that’s tackling lesbianism during a time when such relationships were verboten, but also a spot on look at how Irish people were often degraded and demeaned during this time period. Macneill never makes a big deal out of either thread, but it’s nice to see them placed at the forefront here.
But all intrigue goes out the window once Lizzie gets around to the murders and the following trial period. After setting up some interesting breadcrumbs that suggest Macneill and Kass are going to leave a lot to the imagination of the viewers, the filmmakers reenact the events, using their own theory about the case. It’s not that the execution (pardon the word choice) is poorly staged, but that the whole explanation mounted by Macneill and Kass is resolutely underwhelming when compared to the rest of the film’s plot mechanics and intelligence. The answer to the core mystery is shown with the simplest solution (albeit with a few dramatically convenient wrinkles), and while the killer might have perpetrated one of the few perfect murders in the history of crime, they’re depicted as some sort of unsung criminal genius and not as a human being thanks to the film’s desire to race through the aftermath of the slayings in an effort to quickly get to the end. Any sense of period detail and historical attentiveness flies out the window in favour of overwritten, hammy sequences where people gruffly and bluntly tell each other how things are going to go down from that point onward. Lizzie is a film that precipitously falls off a cliff and into forgettable and regrettable territory.
Lizzie feels somewhat inert by design from the outset, favouring period details and character over pat plotting. There’s always a hope that Macneill and company are building towards some sort of greater payoff. That payoff never arrives in any satisfactory form, but those involved with Lizzie should be credited for being able to tell a story based on one of America’s most salacious and scandalous true crime stories with a modicum of restraint and grace. It’s an approach that ultimately can’t be followed through on to its fullest, but something worth commending in an otherwise disappointing film.
Lizzie opens at Cineplex Canada Square in Toronto on Friday, September 28, 2018. It expands to Vancouver and Montreal on Friday, October 5 and to additional Canadian cities throughout the fall.
Check out the trailer for Lizzie:
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