Around two years ago, I happened to come across a magazine article on Lizzie Borden and that infamous real-life murder case involved with her. Because I vaguely knew about her notoriety, I read that article with considerable fascination, and I was certainly delighted to learn a lot about that murder case which still remains unsolved even at this point.
Incidentally, the articled mentioned a movie called “Lizzie”, which is, of course, inspired by that murder case. I had already heard about that film, so I came to have more expectation on it after reading that article, but, sadly, the movie turns out to be not as interesting as that article. While it surely has an intriguing fictional premise to interest us, the movie does not have enough narrative momentum or emotional intensity to engage us, and it eventually fizzles as giving a rather flat speculation on what really happened in Lizzie’s house on August 4th, 1892.
The story begins with the arrival of a young woman named Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), who is recently hired as a housemaid by Lizzie’s father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and his second wife Abby (Fiona Shaw). As she spends her first day in the Borden family’s house, Bridget soon encounters Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny), and they subsequently get quite close to each other as Lizzie occasionally teaches Bridget how to read.
While observing how their relationship is developed into something more than friendship, the movie also shows us how Lizzie is often suffocated by her oppressive domestic environment. As a 32-year-old spinster, she wants more life and freedom, but her stern father does not allow that much, and he is often quite cruel to her. At one point, he mercilessly slaughters her pet pigeons just because he is very angry about her, and he even has these poor pigeons cooked and then served as the main course of the following dinner.
The situation becomes a little tenser when a series of threatening anonymous letters are delivered to Andrew, who naturally becomes concerned and then decides to write a will for his family. As discussing with his first wife’s brother John Morse (Denis O’Hare), he tells Morse that his estate will be bestowed to his wife instead of his two daughters, and it is apparent that Morse is the one who will handle the estate on behalf of Abby when Andrew dies. After overhearing this discussion between Andrew and Morse, Lizzie is understandably concerned about her and her sister’s future status, but it looks like there is nothing she can do about this circumstance, and she feels more cornered when she is told that she will be sent away from the house due to her rather problematic health condition.
Meanwhile, Bridget has her own problem to deal with. Not long after approaching to her a little too close, Andrew comes to her bedroom at one night, and Lizzie happens to hear her father sexually assaulting Bridget. After that terrible incident, Lizzie and Bridget come to lean on each other more than before, and there eventually comes a moment when they cross the line between them a bit, but then, as many of you have already expected, their very intimate relationship happens to be discovered by Andrew.
As Andrew subsequently tries to break the relationship between his daughter and Bridget, Lizzie decides to do something quite drastic for her and Bridget. While the movie does not flinch from some gruesome details which will surely make you cringe, the murder sequence is presented with detached restraint at least, and the movie also gives us a seemingly plausible explanation on several questionable details of the murder case.
However, the screenplay by Bryce Kass does not establish a strong emotional basis for its story and characters. From the beginning, it does not delve much into its two main characters or their relationship without generating any substantial psychological tension, and we come to watch them from the distance while not emotionally involved much in their drama. Although there is a melodramatic private moment between them later in the film, it feels rather lifeless on the whole, and that makes the following anti-climactic finale all the more disappointing.
At least, the movie is mildly engaging thanks to Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, who try to compensate for the weak aspects of the movie as much as they can. While Sevigny, who also participated in the production of the film, is effective when she subtly expresses her character’s anger and frustration, Stewart is also solid as the counterpoint for her co-star, and it is a shame that the movie does not fully utilize their talents while only demanding them to look subdued and restrained during most of its running time. In case of other notable performers in the film, Fiona Shaw, Jamey Sheridan, Kim Dickens and Denis O’Hare are stuck with their bland thankless roles, and O’Hare manages to bring some sleaziness to his despicable supporting character.
Overall, “Lizzie”, which is directed by Craig William Macneill, is not a complete dud, and I did enjoy watching Sevigny and Stewart together on the screen, but it is still disappointing for a number of glaring flaws including its lackadaisical storytelling and insipid characterization. As a matter of fact, I am going to read that aforementioned magazine article again, and I am sure it will give me a more entertaining time.