In June 1893, Lizzie Borden was acquitted at trial for the murder of her father, Andrew, and stepmother, Abby. Borden, ostracised by the affluent residents of Fall River, Massachusetts that she lived among, died age 66 in 1927 but remained the prime suspect.
The case scandalised America. There was a grisly murder weapon (a hatchet), the suggestion of incest as a motive (hinted at in local press reports of the time) and whisperings of a lesbian affair between Borden and the family maid, Bridget Sullivan. Sullivan and Borden’s potential affair was explored by author Ed McBain in a 1984 novel that shares this film’s title and is tackled, along with the murders and their motives, in director Craig William Macneill’s horror-tinged period drama.
In what may be her best role and performance since Boys Don’t Cry (1999), Chloe Sevigny stars as Borden and quietly purveys grace and dignity as the devout, troubled woman who lives a sad live in the shadow of her domineering father (Jamey Sheridan). Parsimonious, severe and controlling, Andrew Borden is portrayed as a monstrous, incestuous tyrant. Abby Borden (Fiona Shaw), meanwhile, is the archetypal wicked stepmother and has little love or affection for Borden or her sister Emma (Kim Dickens). Irish emigrant Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) gets a job working for the unhappy family and strikes up a tentative friendship with and attraction for Borden, much to the chagrin of her father.
Borden and Sullivan’s relationship is depicted sensitively and with passion but not overstated. They are brought together through their mutual unhappiness and want of a better life. It would have been easy to sensationalise the pair’s behaviour, but Macneill is even-handed if sometimes a bit flat – the film may contain two major stars but veers towards the dour, even if this in keeping with austere nature of Andrew Borden and the way he ran his household. Budgetary restrictions may account for a sense of visual flatness.
Macneill has said that he found New England locations at the time depicted were difficult to acquire for the money available, which led to much of the film being shot inside. When there were added complexities in finding a suitable interior location, things became even more logistically challenging.
Here it’s worth considering the creative input of Sevigny. Aside from her starring role, she acted as co-producer having first developed the film in 2010 with Bryce Kass, who has written the screenplay. The pair had a frustrating time and almost got the project turned into a mini-series for HBO – only to find Lifetime beat them to it with The Lizzie Borden Chronicles (Christina Ricci played Borden and the series is on Netflix).
All of which adds to Lizzie being something of a frustrating labour of love for its lead actor, perhaps doubly so since the film was actually delivered. Sevigny has expressed dismay with some of Macneill’s decisions in interviews, evidently displeased with the removal of scenes involving the Borden/Sullivan relationship and more aggressive familial confrontations. Sevigny felt these might provide a stronger indication of Borden’s motive.
One can easily sympathise with Sevigny. Yes, the neutral, reserved feel Macneill achieves is adhered to throughout and the film is consistently calm and thoughtful. But it would have been better to let go a little and bring more heat to the whole piece. As it stands, Lizzie contains some fine bloodthirsty murder scenes but otherwise feels a touch undercooked.
Lizzie is in UK cinemas now