'Lizzie': Film Review | Sundance 2018

A sensitive and stylish take on the legend.

Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart unlace their bodices for this steamy take on the story of Lizzie Borden, a woman tried for murdering her father and stepmother in the 1890s.

After innumerable plays, books, films, made-for-TV series and specials, and even an opera and a musical, you would think popular culture would have exhausted all the options for telling the story of Lizzie Borden, the New England woman who was tried and acquitted for the ax murders of her father and stepmother in 1892. But such is the fascination with Borden and the enigmatic story around her, a gory tale chock-full of intriguing timeline gaps and baffling stray details, that artists keep finding ways to reinterpret it to suit different times and tastes.

The elegantly lurid but compelling Lizzie, written by Bryce Kass, directed by Craig William Macneill (The Boy) and produced by Chloe Sevigny in her best form in the title role, carves out of the raw material a suitably 2018 version, befitting of the #MeToo generation. In their hands, Lizzie becomes a study of secret female lovers (Kristen Stewart co-stars as the household maid Borden falls for) joining forces to fight back against an abusive patriarch (Jamey Sheridan) and his enabling spouse (Fiona Shaw). So it's empowering and respectful when delivering the tender love scenes between the women but also ready to go full-on horror-movie trashy, in a good way, with jump scares, close-up shots of faces stabbed to a pulp and a naked, blood-splattered Sevigny stalking stealthily across sun-dappled vintage floorboards. Given that tonal peculiarity, this may prove divisive with viewers and will need good PR and marketing support to ascend beyond the festival and specialist troposphere.

After an opening sequence that unfolds on the day of the murders, heralded by Lizzie's screams and panicked orders to housemaid Bridget (Stewart) to go and fetch a doctor immediately, the plot rolls back six months to the moment when Bridget first arrived at the Borden home in Fall River, Massachusetts.

The Borden menage is headed by the patrician Andrew Borden, a wealthy skinflint with a sadistic streak, who takes particular pleasure in manipulating his family via money. Widowed relatively recently, his second wife, Abby, acts as helpmeet and housekeeper, lending him respectable cover like a wide-brimmed bonnet so he can get away with raping the servants, such as pretty Irish immigrant Bridget. It's left ambiguous as to whether Mr. Borden ever sexually abused his daughters, Emma (Kim Dickens) or Lizzie, both now grown women and considered spinsters, in the parlance of the time, but it seems a safe bet that he at least thought about it, and both women know that too.

Whatever happened in the past, it's clear that there's little love between Lizzie, her father and stepmother. Nor do she and Emma have much affection for their weaselly uncle John Morse (Denis O'Hare, deliciously skeevy), who keeps coming over to hatch business schemes with Andrew, all the while planning to throw Emma out and Lizzie into a mental hospital as soon as he manages to inherit Mr. Borden's fortune.

Practically a prisoner in the house given her limited lifestyle options, the epileptic Lizzie finds a few crumbs of comfort by caring for a flock of ill-fated doves and attending the local theater, and even that last pleasure has to be negotiated with Mr. Borden almost every time. Seemingly isolated socially, Lizzie forms a tentative friendship with likewise lonely Bridget and soon starts teaching the only semi-literate girl how to read. At times, their hands may linger for a moment longer than expected on each other's bodies as Bridget helps Lizzie dress in the many layers of clothing obligatory for ladies at the time. (Natalie O'Brien's finely tailored, period-accurate but character-revealing costumes are a strong suit throughout.) Brushing hands leads to longing looks, which leads to kisses and eventually full-on humping in the haystacks, which unfortunately Mr. Borden spies upon, precipitating the catastrophic final act.

With the main bullet points of what happened known by most audience members, Kass' well-researched script concentrates less on how and more on why. He commendably takes time to elucidate how much the family strife was based on power struggles over money, a factor as motivating as desire, disgust and a thirst for revenge. At the same time, not everything is spelled out too literally, and both the screenplay and Macneill's sensitive direction leave it to the lead actors to fill in the foreground colors.

Always adept at turning a one-liner and projecting a strong, muscular intelligence, Sevigny fully owns the picture and rather upstages Stewart, no mean feat in itself. Special praise is also owed to Macneill's regular contributor, DP Noah Greenberg, who creates an especially sensuous atmosphere with little more than double-wicked candles, sunshine filtered through old glass and a gauzy palette. Elsewhere, Jeff Russo's sometimes abrasive score adds a neatly modern edge to the late-Victorian petty prettiness of the period.



Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Production: A Powder Hound Pictures, Destro Films, Artina Films production

Cast: Chloe Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jeff Perry, Fiona Shaw, Jamey Sheridan, Kim Dickens, Denis O'Hare

Director: Craig William Macneill

Screenwriters: Bryce Kass

Producers: Naomi Despres, Liz Destro, Chloe Sevigny

Co-producer: Josh Bachove

Executive producers: Elizabeth Stillwell, Roxanne Fie Anderson, Edward J. Anderson

Director of photography: Noah Greenberg

Production designer: Elizabeth J. Jones

Costume designer: Natalie O'Brien

Editor: Abbi Jutkowitz

Music: Jeff Russo

Casting: Kate Geller, Jessica Kelly

Sales: WME, Gersh

105 minutes