Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks;
when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
A nursery rhyme beloved by fellow weird kids around the world, the tale of Lizzie Borden has become more of an urban legend than a legitimate study into how much a person can take before completely snapping. Media depictions of the axe murder of Massachusetts and wannabe socialite Lizzie have been anything but kind, with the most known recent depiction being the Lifetime original film Lizzie Borden Took an Ax starring Christina Ricci, a highly speculative and overly salacious telling of the murders as if Lizzie were more akin to Michael Myers than a scorned woman. The film even spawned a limited series showing Lizzie’s life after her acquittal, showing more fictional murders committed by Lizzie.
The issue is that Lizzie’s life was a complicated affair, one that almost perfectly explains the factors that went into the alleged murder of her father and stepmother (she was acquitted, after all). Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie, unlike Lizzie Borden Took an Ax in nearly every way, attempts to look into and analyze the life that Lizzie led and the relationships she had which brought her to the fateful day of the murders.
It’s the late days of summer of 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts, and the Borden family, led by patriarch Andrew Borden (Jeremy Sheridan), have taken in a new housemaid, Irish immigrant Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart). While her time waiting on the family is monotonous at first, she begins to strike up a relationship with Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny), the elusive youngest daughter of the Bordens. Lizzie desperately wants to be a socialite, but her father’s frugal nature leads the Massachusetts elite to look down upon her and her family’s treatment of her leads her to resent her family. As Bridget and Lizzie become closer, Lizzie is pushed by her family’s treatment of her, leading her to make a decision that will change the course of her’s and Bridget’s lives forever.
If Lizzie gets one thing incredibly right, it’s the performances throughout the entire film. Sevigny has frankly never been better than she is in this film, embodying a certain coldness that comes with an outcast like Lizzie, but with a desperate want to be accepted by not just society, but her own family. There’s a sadness in Sevigny’s performance here. One that, despite knowing the atrocities Lizzie most certainly committed (and is implied she in fact did commit them in this film), draws the audience to still sympathize with her, which is a surprising feat of acting. Stewart, one of the finest actors of her generation (sans Twilight, which was just an unfortunately popular product of bad writing), gives a similarly powerful, if quieter performance as Bridget. Stewart is an actor who utilizes expressions on her face in her performances, not needing words to convey the emotions that her characters feel to the audience. The role of Bridget seems tailor-made for Stewart’s unique acting ability and she does brilliant work in the role. Together, the two actresses have a strikingly passionate, if demure, chemistry that is subtly moving, if uncomfortably tragic.
For a film about axe murders, Lizzie is a fashionably restrained film that doesn’t seek to glorify the murders of real-life individuals, regardless of their behaviors. Don’t let that confuse you, though, as Lizzie is a twisted film that leaves no room for lightheartedness or joy. Lizzie’s life before the murders was one of distrust, mistreatment, and secrecy. She found herself nearly all alone in the world without anyone to lean on except for Bridget. Lizzie pulls no punches and spares no expense in looking at the quiet pain that Lizzie experienced and at the brutal rage that came out of suppressing that pain for so long.
And therein lies the moral dilemma of Lizzie. The film doesn’t ask whether Lizzie committed the murders or not. Instead, it asks if her actions could be explained by circumstance or mental illness, and, regardless, whether she was inherently wrong in taking action. It might seem strange in theory reading about questioning the morality of a real-life murder in a film since this might seem black-and-white, but Lizzie gets under your skin as you teeter back-and-forth analyzing the details of the crime.
Of course, Lizzie takes historical liberties in telling its story in a way that promotes this sort of thought, but it creates a far more cerebral and engaging experience, rather than seeming to just be adding an air of salaciousness to the story. This is a stripped down telling of the story, and, of the many adaptations of the murders in film and TV, this one feels the least speculative. But that’s where the story of Lizzie is a tough one to adapt, as the actual facts of the crime are unconfirmed, there will never be a telling of the story that won’t be forced to take liberties to fill in the thematic gaps that history has never told us. Lizzie, as a film, is a slow-burn look inside a passionate and unlikely relationship that occurs right at the wrong place, and at exactly the wrong time. Macneill directs the film with a restrained, but still harrowing hand, leaving Sevigny and Stewart to their devices as actors, which might just be the best decision to be made in the production of a film like this. The film relies on the performances of these two characters to be strong, but Sevigny and Stewart take it to the next level, providing a surprisingly passionate take on a story seemingly told a million times before, but, this time, in a beautifully haunting new light.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.