Starring: Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Fiona Shaw, Kim Dickens, Denis O’Hare, Jamey Sheridan
Director: Craig William Macneil
The real crime story of Lizzie Borden is one that Americans know well. Alongside Charles Manson, Aileen Wuornos and the murders of the Clutter Family, there’s something about this enigmatic 1890s New England murder case that has intrigued, baffled and captured the imaginations of generations of Americans, inspiring conspiracy theories aplenty. With several adaptations of the story already made for the screen – the most recent of which saw Christina Ricci take the title role in 2014 – this adaptation by New England director Craig William Macneill (The Boy) promised to be the big-screen version for a new generation… but unfortunately, any Millennials expecting a thrill-ride of a horror-thriller will be sorely disappointed.
Lizzie Borden (Sevigny) is a 32 year-old socially outcast spinster, living in the shadow of her domineering and wealthy father (Sheridan). Living with him, his new wife (Shaw) and her sister (Dickens), Lizzie is the heir to a large fortune, but in the suffocating atmosphere of the family home, their lives are anything but comfortable. When a young maid named Bridget (Stewart) comes to work for and live with the family, she and Lizzie strike up a kinship that extends far beyond friendship. And when her scheming uncle (O’Hare) tries to divide the family even further, it’s only a matter of time before Lizzie takes matters into her own hands.
While some features of the story are pretty faithful to the real narrative of events (the murder of her pigeons by her father is positioned as greatly significant), there are also elements that have been greatly embellished for this adaptation. With the story here revolving around a sexual relationship between Borden and Bridget, the reality is that the maid’s testimony at the subsequent court-case was pretty damning for Lizzie, suggesting that their relationship had been far from what is depicted here. And while the film goes to great lengths to show the mounting tension of them all living in the same house together, in reality Lizzie and her sister had gone for an extended vacation just before the murders.
Historical inaccuracies aside though, these could have been forgiven if the film had succeeded in piling tension onto the story. But just as the narrative gets to its climax, it irritatingly swerves in its timeline, clearly trying to save the “good stuff” for the final ten minutes, but succeeding only in creating the filmic version of edging. In trying to maintain the characters’ enigma, key scenes have clearly been omitted that explain exactly how and why the murders took place. And when the “good stuff” finally arrives, there is a real lack of conviction in giving motive to the madness, despite being a character-piece. Surely the point of focusing on character should have been to give them a motive? Just asking for a friend. Also, please note, the “good stuff” is far from good.
It’s been a while since Chloë Sevigny made a decent film, but there’s no denying her strength as a performer. Her icy stare and hard features make her perfectly cast, but her mystery here feels more like aloofness and Lizzie is subsequently unrelatable – which is a problem for a film that is trying desperately to uncover a motive. Meanwhile, Kristen Stewart plays Kristen Stewart as usual (does anybody actually understand how she’s managed to find a career post-Twilight?) and her vulnerability make her about as appealing as a pork pie in a bin. Fiona Shaw and Denis O’Hare do offer strong support, but both are criminally underused.
Lizzie is nowhere near the definitive version of the story that fans have wanted. Nor is it even really an interesting addition to the Borden canon. It’s a character-piece that never opens up its characters. It’s a thriller without tension and a horror film without horror (unless you count a lingering close-up of Andrew Borden’s hacked-up face). It promises sexual tension and only half delivers. It promises so much, but manages only to provide lesbian-Borden-lite. And I’m not sure anyone needed that.
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