In the well-known rhyme, Lizzie Borden is assumed guilty of butchering her father and stepmother with an ax. Yet in a Massachusetts courtroom in 1893, she was found innocent. Director Craig William Macneill’s account of the case, Lizzie, delivers its own verdict. But only after a lot of deliberation.
Bryce Kass’ script presents three logical suspects in the slayings of Abby (Fiona Shaw) and Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), which occurred hours apart on the same day. The perpetrator might be Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny), who hates her disapproving stepmom and is none too pleased with her stingy dad. Or Irish-born new maid Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), who seems too cowed to kill but soon has reason to hate Andrew. Or John Morse (Denis O’Hare), Lizzie’s boorish maternal uncle, who’s clearly a villain even if he’s not necessarily a murderer.
The filmmakers largely stick with the known facts, and when they venture into speculation they follow well-blazed trails. Borden buffs — can we call them axheads? — will not be surprised when frustrated spinster Lizzie develops tender feelings for innocent young Bridget. The women’s supposed bond offers a few plausible motives for homicide.
These don’t play out quickly. Lizzie begins with the discovery of the bodies in the Bordens’ bourgeois home, then doubles back to observe all the major events. As the story slowly transpires, it long seems possible that the movie will not actually depict the murders. When they do finally occur, the film’s temperature barely rises, even as the carefully planned infamy goes messily wrong.
Lizzie’s phlegmatic demeanor can be seen as either a flaw or a feature. The same might be said of the movie’s politics, which seek less to absolve the title character than to empathize with all women in Victorian-era societies. Lizzie’s manner is petulant and deceitful, but that’s not unreasonable when she’s pitted against a father who commands her not to go the theater alone and an uncle who is openly scheming to steal her inheritance.
Bridget, who lacks Lizzie’s high status and comfortable upbringing, is even more a slave to the patriarchal system. But then so is Abby, who attempts to keep Lizzie in her place while chafing at her own subordinate role.
The drama has two other characters: Lizzie’s older sister (Kim Dickens), who manages to avoid most of the unpleasantness, and the underlit family house, which can’t. It voices its inanimate discontent with creaks and clunks, abetted by Jeff Russo’s harsh, spare score. Cinematographer Noah Greenberg deftly plays on the female residents’ spiritual imprisonment, locking them between stair rails and within window frames. When Lizzie finally goes to jail, her circumstances barely change — visually, at least.
The movie’s handsome appearance is complemented by assured performances. Stewart’s Irish accent is as believable as her timid disposition, while Sevigny conveys strength and determination without ever appearing too modern for the role. She and the sneering O’Hare have the most emotionally direct moments in a tale that emphasizes repression. Other characters pursue their desires, but only in secret.
Their stealth is emulated all too well by Macneill and Kass. Their movie is accomplished, intriguing, and — for those who don’t know the history well — informative. But anyone waiting for catharsis is likely to be disappointed. However many whacks whoever gave Abby and Andrew, in Lizzie their murders are just barely crimes of passion.