The first scene of “Lizzie” opening Sept. 21at the Landmark Ritz Five takes place on Aug. 4, 1892, with the title character (Chlöe Sevigny) screaming in horror as she discovers the dead body of her mother, Abby (out actress Fiona Shaw).
This austere film, written by Bryce Kass and directed by Craig William Macneill, then flashes back six months earlier to suggest what may have prompted the murder of Abby and her husband Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), both of whom were killed with an ax.
The narrative begins with Bridget Sullivan (bisexual actress Kristen Stewart), a poor Irish girl, taking a job as the Bordens’ housekeeper. She soon meets Lizzie, who sizes Bridget up and takes an interest in teaching her to read. “Men don’t have to know things. Women do,” she tells Bridget, and the two women start to develop a bond that gets considerably more intimate as the film progresses.
Unlike the timid Bridget, Lizzie is a headstrong, independent young woman. She is not afraid to challenge her father, Andrew, about going out to the theater unaccompanied at night. Andrew is also quite indomitable. He destroys something Lizzie loves with an axe in a disturbing and gruesome scene that animal lovers will not want to watch. Moreover, after complimenting Bridget and giving her a raise, he tells her to leave her bedroom door open. He enters it at night to do more than just wish her sweet dreams.
As Lizzie and Bridget engage in a passionate affair, Andrew sees it and demands it must end. The film suggests that there were jealousies and revenge at the heart of the killings.
However, other factors may have contributed to Andrew and Abby’s murders. First, there was a series of threatening letters that Andrew insists he, not the police, will deal with. Then there is also a situation involving Andrew’s brother, John (out actor Denis O’Hare), and a will he may have manipulated for his own benefit to gain control over Andrew’s fortune.
How much of what this revisionist film depicts is true is less interesting than how the film presents the story. Macneill shoots much of “Lizzie” in tastefully composed scenes that capture the waning years of the Gilded Age. The film takes an almost-minimalist approach to telling the story, setting much of the action in and around the Borden house, where characters conspire in secret or in the prison, where Lizzie, who is suspected of the crime(s), is being held. Alas, the musical score, which consists of shrieking violins, is meant to complement the drama, but instead telegraphs too much emotion.
There are some intense exchanges and altercations, most notably a pair of juicy scenes between Lizzie and John, where he threatens her. And, yes, “Lizzie” will certainly satisfy viewers who hope to see the “money shot” — that of a naked Lizzie taking an ax and giving her mother 40 whacks, and then, seeing what she had done, giving her father 41. (That is kind of how it plays out in the film, but best to let audiences see how the murders allegedly transpired.)
Unfortunately, much of this ambitious film is painfully sluggish and airless. Viewers must wait patiently for Lizzie to commit the crimes she is famous for, and Macneill does not generate much dramatic tension up to the big moment. The relationship between Lizzie and Bridget unfolds very s-l-o-w-l-y, as it takes an hour before the two women even kiss. While the crimes are treated with some flair, the court case and denouement are almost afterthoughts. It is as though Macneill was afraid to play up some of the more-sensational elements of the case. As a result, the film feels muted.
At least Sevigny gives a compelling performance in the title role. She is particularly shrewd in verbally cutting down a society woman at the theater, or having an interesting discussion with the family lawyer about her anticipated inheritance. (The latter scene illustrates how women were second-class citizens in 19th-century society, an important point.)
In support, Stewart fares less well as Bridget. Her character never quite comes to life, even after she and Lizzie spark and start getting romantic. Stewart underplays the role, but it also seems that her character is somewhat underwritten.
However, Sheridan and O’Hare deliver strong performances as Andrew and John, respectively. This may be in part because they are men who tangle with Lizzie in key scenes and prove to be formidable opponents. As Abby, Shaw is respectable, but also underused.
“Lizzie” is certainly not the definitive biopic of Lizzie Borden, but it might do well in prompting audiences to read more about the real story. The feminist suppositions made in the film are not uninteresting, but one wishes they were delivered a bit more forcefully.