Updated: Feb 7, 2020
On August 4th 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were found brutally murdered in their home. They had each been repeatedly struck with an axe. Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie, was arrested and charged with the crime. She had a weak alibi and her story was unconvincing, but a jury found her not guilty nonetheless. Nobody was ever convicted of the murders. The public has been fascinated by the case ever since. There are many different theories about who did it, what really went on that day and what led to it, though Lizzie remains by far the most popular suspect.
The quiet, moody, drama Lizzie adds its own spin on the tale. It is a pretty straightforward telling that quickly establishes the characters and their relationships, then simply watches as they progress toward their fates. It is well-made and well-acted, however its detached approach stops it from being particularly engaging.
Lizzie lives in the family home with her wealthy father, stepmother and sister. As this movie begins, a new maid moves in. Her name is Bridget Sullivan (though all of the family’s maids are called Maggie). Lizzie takes an immediate liking to her, giving them both a taste of kindness in the cruel world they live in. Everyone else is more concerned with keeping up appearances and obeying her domineering, abusive father. Their friendship allows Lizzie to see her father for who he truly is and motivates her to do something about her situation.
This is done at a slow pace that brings us into the character’s lives (especially Lizzie and Bridget) without bringing us into their heads. The movie is filled with a lot of medium and long-shots, though it does have its share of close-ups. Close-ups usually create an intimacy between the audience and the character, but here they just add to the mystery. There is nothing wrong with this style, except that it makes it difficult to figure out what director Craig William Macneill was trying to say by putting this onscreen. It comes off as a theory retold, without any additional insight. It gives the story an explanation, but no real meaning.
Macneill does throw in some directorial touches that really work. His use of framing is quite impressive, this way he can imply important details while showing very little. In the scenes with Lizzie and Bridget, they are both on one side of the frame. This illustrates their closeness and offsets them against the emptiness of the rest of the world. He is constantly emphasizing their interior responses to various events. Or at least as much as can be decoded by viewers. That is how the story moves forward.
There is a shot late in the film that is a close-up of one of the women huddled against a window which is reflecting the thing she is reacting to on the other side of the room. There are a bunch of cool little bits like that. I greatly admire the job Macneill did on Lizzie, even if I am not as enthusiastic when it comes to the overall film.
He is helped just as much by his two lead actresses. Chloë Sevigny, who had been wanting to make this for years and serves as a producer, plays Lizzie as a damaged woman looking to finally take her life into her own hands. She does not attempt to make Lizzie Borden evil or sympathetic. She is a woman trying to survive. The audience can draw their own opinions about what that makes her. It is a very committed performance.
She is matched by Kristen Stewart who continues to prove her talents as an actress by taking on one challenging role after another (her performance in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper was one of the best of 2016). She brings what emotion there is to Lizzie and she does so by keeping her passions hidden. Where Sevigny gets to do some acting out, Bridget, being of a lower class, needs to hold her tongue and know her place. Both play their parts as well as I can imagine.
Lizzie (100 minute minus the end credits) maintains a tone that is effectively creepy in its inevitability. There is nothing surprising here, not that you would expect there to be. It tells a version of the story we have all heard. It does so with conviction, but lacking purpose. Though I liked a lot of things about it, I am unable to give it more than a very mild recommendation. Those who enjoy the artistry of filmmaking may find it intriguing. Those looking for anything more will probably want to pass.
3 out of 5
Chloë Sevigny as Lizzie Borden
Kristen Stewart as Bridget Sullivan
Jamey Sheridan as Andrew Borden
Fiona Shaw as Abby Borden
Kim Dickens as Emma Borden
Denis O’Hare as John Morse
Directed by Craig William Macneill
Written by Bryce Kass