I’m a sucker for norm-questioning psychological thrillers but have little appetite for period dramas. Lizzie therefore sets up an interesting challenge - can I absorb and enjoy what the film is trying to annotate without being bored to death with the politics, hardship, fancy dress and kooky accents of a forgone era? The short answer, yes.
Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny), was a 19th century socialite and liberal in a very zealous and archaic time, personified no more so than in her fat-cat father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and staunch step-mother Abby (Fiona Shaw). A social outcast - exacerbated by a medical condition that left her prone to fainting and seizures - she develops an infatuation for her new maid, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stuart) while simultaneously dealing with an ‘evil’ uncle John Morse (Denis O'Hare) who arrives to claim some, eventually all, of the family fortune. Dramas rise to a point where Lizzie’s parents are found mutilated by an axe. Lizzie is charged with their murder, later acquitted and then left with her father’s fortune to live her life as she pleases; a narrative begging to be made into a(nother) film. Following a 1975 Elizabeth Montgomery-led version, and 2014 TV movie starring Christina Ricci.
Few know what compelled Lizzie to murder her parents - it even inspired a nursery rhyme, 'Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one’ - but the case still illicits interest and Borden makes for a fascinating psychological case-study. There’s depth to the veneer of a troubled upperclass socialite of the late 1800s and I was excited to find out how this version of events develops.
Sevigny’s Lizzie dextrously reacts to the world around her with facial expressions and quips that make it hard not to empathise with her. Kristen Stuart, somewhat of an independent film connoisseur now, adds an intimacy to her role as the Irish maid. Desperate to provide for herself and her family, Bridget’s working class, immigrant background make for an interesting comparison to Lizzie’s character study.
The women’s relationship becomes evermore alluring with the playfully raw connection they fester, exploring a 'your life is different to mine and that’s cool' narrative with genuine sentiment. Stakes presented to both are equally as devastating but can set their lives down very different paths -"We live in this world and not another" stands out as a powerful summary of the film, and leaves you anxious and distressed when the oppressive lifestyle of 1892 Massachusetts lays its hands on our female leads.
Trying to humanise characters in period dramas is where I usually lose interest because this almost always results in actors becoming boring caricatures of what we learn from history books: The landowner - a crass villain oblivious of the strife of the race or class they are working to the bone. Debutants or princes - framed as ahead of their time and not fond of a particular aspect of their very privileged lifestyle (until a lover comes and becomes their fixation). The socially mobile working class person who finds an opportunity to prove they are more than their labour.
Craig William Macneill’s directing and Bryce Kass’ sharp script means the story runs at a healthy, entertaining pace. In a rush to keep things tight and get through the action, however, the filmmakers sacrifice sufficient time for the audience to become completely invested in the characters of this story. That said, Macneill and the cast are skilled enough to distill more from the archetypes of this era. A few more confrontational or exploratory scenes could have given this film as much heart as it has bite.
Lizzie examines what happens when one man - deemed “good” by society - possess all the power and what that does to a family and greater society: a critique of the West, patriarchy, capitalism, and lot of contemporary issues at the surface today. It’s a period drama that’s won me over with its off-kilter leads and quizzical story of a difficult time but its secondary story elements and supporting cast aren’t explored enough to make you want to carry the lessons of Lizzie Borden’s struggle for long. It may be pushed as a lesbian, axe-murdeing win for girls, and while there is nothing wrong with that in the world of the straight white man, it could be so much more.