[LIZZIE opens in Cleveland on Friday September 21st at the Cedar Lee Theater.]
On August 4th, 1892, Andrew Borden and his wife, Abby, were murdered in their home by an assailant using a hatchet. Andrew’s daughter Lizzie was put on trial for the murders but ultimately acquitted. No other suspects were ever charged. It was, at the time, the “crime of the century”. Beyond those basic facts, however, there is considerable room for speculation. And speculate director Craig William Macneil and writer Bryce Kass do in the new film LIZZIE.
In setting its stage, LIZZIE depicts Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) as a cold, psychologically abusive father to his daughters Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) and Emma (Kim Dickens), both of whom he views as past their prime marrying age and something of a burden. Emma tries to stay under the radar, but Lizzie engages in small acts of defiance, like going out on the town in the evening unchaperoned.
At one point, Andrew comes to believe that Lizzie has been gossiping about the family’s problems. He retaliates by brutally killing his daughter’s pet pigeons, then having them served up for dinner. He also uses his position of power to force himself sexually on the new maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart). Andrew’s second wife Abby (Fiona Shaw) knows what’s going on, but given the times, there’s not much she can do other than show her contempt.
Further driving home the film’s theme of malignant patriarchy, Andrew decides he can’t leave his inheritance to his daughters without someone to oversee it for them. His choice is their uncle John Morse (Denis O’Hare), an obviously shady character more interested in his own fortunes than in helping his nieces manage theirs.
Amidst all this seething dysfunction and abuse, the one bright spot for Lizzie is an unexpected relationship with Bridget. Friends at first, they eventually become lovers.
While I’ll refrain from any further description of the plot, it’s fair to say that LIZZIE is not a mystery film, nor does it even trade much in suspense. It’s more of a historical drama that uses a factual case as a way to explore its themes. As such, it most definitely has a point of view as to who committed the murders, how, and why, and it doesn’t waste any time with red herrings or deep analysis of the evidence.
On the plus side, the efforts to link the film to modern feminist themes does add some welcome relevance that contemporary viewers can relate to, even if the execution isn’t always perfect. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to make this dry, slow moving historical drama as engaging as one might like.
Sevigny and Steward give their all, but neither one of their characters feels as fleshed out as they should be. And despite those aforementioned feminist themes, LIZZIE has a few scenes that veer into exploitation territory. Both Stewart and Sevigny have done nude scenes in other films, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. However, it just feels off here. None of this is to say that LIZZIE is without merit, but it’s hard to give it a full throated recommendation.