- Written by Bryce Kass
- Directed by Craig William Macneill
- Starring Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart
- Classification: 14A; 106 minutes
Lizzie Borden took an axe / And gave her mother 40 whacks …
Actually, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother, by an all-male jury that could not believe an upstanding lady would be capable of such a crime. Still, in the popular imagination, she’s a murderess and the new film Lizzie does not disagree. However, it does suggest she had plenty of provocation: Craig William Macneill directs the rare thriller in which tension is created not by the fearful dread of what is to come but rather by its impatient anticipation. If Andrew Borden had been your father, you probably would have murdered him too.
In small-town Massachusetts in 1892, Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) lives in a state of more-or-less repressed mutual hostility with her dictatorial and penny-pinching father (Jamey Sheridan) and her dour stepmother (Fiona Shaw). She is trapped in a suffocating household not only by spinsterhood and financial dependence, but also by an unpredictable disease. In one significant departure from previous retellings, screenwriter Bryce Kass explores a lesser-known piece of the rich apocrypha surrounding the actual historical figure and makes Lizzie epileptic. Her father is planning to have her institutionalized while her nasty little uncle John (Denis O’Hare) is scheming to get her inheritance. Her only allies are her more sensible sister Emma (Kim Dickens) and the new Irish maid Bridget (Kristen Stewart), who has also caught her father’s roving eye.
From there, Macneill and Kass wind up a story of illicit love and desperate plotting that holds a viewer tight until the actual murders – if not so much in the aftermath, a weaker denouement set in a jail cell and courtroom.
Sevigny plays Lizzie as distant and difficult; the actress struggles to find her footing in the early scenes, not helped by the occasional piece of awkward exposition, and formal language that makes the haughty character sound stilted. There’s a particularly nonsensical interchange at the theatre where she snubs a woman in the ladies’ room who has the temerity to ask why Andrew Borden refuses to pay for gaslight in his home. But, gradually, Sevigny’s performance emerges as intelligent in its distancing effect: We may need to sympathize with Lizzie’s desperation just to get through the film, but we don’t have to like her – and we don’t.
As the unfortunate young Bridget, Stewart is equally effective and much pleasanter, her repulsion at her employer’s advances, her gratitude for any kindness and her horror at Lizzie’s plan all writ large on her suffering face. There are only two erotic scenes between the two women, and Macneill, Sevigny and Stewart handle them with conviction: For all the horror of her situation, Lizzie needed some larger motivation to wield her axe. Lizzie dramatically provides it.