Lizzie Borden is a name that has managed to remain infamous in American culture despite having left the public eye over a century ago. For those not familiar, Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother were brutally murdered in 1892. Lizzie was considered the prime suspect in the case but (spoiler alert for a trial that happened in 1892) was ultimately found not guilty. Much like OJ however, the popular consensus is that she did in fact commit the crime.
Lizzie largely follows the titular character, Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) and the circumstances of her life leading up to her parents grizzly murder. Lizzie is an outcast or a black sheep. Un-wed and prone to ignoring societal norms (like going to the theater unaccompanied). Lizzie serves as a constant point of tension for her family. Add to this her tendency for seizures and this is a full blown nightmare for an upstanding, wealthy family like the Bordens in 1892.
The story starts with and revolves significantly around the Borden family hiring on a new servant, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) or “Maggie.” Bridget and Lizzie quickly form a friendship and Lizzie not only treats Bridget with respect (using her real name instead of just referring to her as Maggie) but even helps teach her to read. As the film progresses the two’s bond quickly turns to sexual tension. This obviously doesn’t sit well with those around them (it is 1892 after all and this would have been a sensitive subject in 2002). The relationship between the two feels genuine and earned as they largely bond over both being strangers in their own home (home meaning literal place they live in this case).
Lizzie’s father and stepmother are extremely cliche parental figures for this type of film set in this period. Her father, Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan), is about what you would expect. He is full of disdain for Lizzie’s non-conformist ways, doesn’t trust the women folk to take care of themselves and of course he has a tendency of sexually assaulting the help. Abby Borden (Fiona Shaw) might as well be playing a “wicked stepmother” for half of her run-time. There just isn’t much in the way of character depth here but we aren’t supposed to like her parents and we don’t, so mission accomplished?
Outside of the characters, Lizzie primarily focuses on how Lizzie’s parents treated her. The situation she ultimately finds herself in is obviously a bad one. Her father wishes to give away her inheritance and send her to an institution. Her only friend is being mistreated and abused by her own father and her stepmother is as eager as anyone to get rid of her. This isn’t even getting into the lesbian love affair with the maid side of things. To put it simply, the film paints a picture in which Lizzie had a choice but the options were awful vs worse. Even the reason she’s ultimately found not guilty is inherently demeaning and sexist. In this, Lizzie becomes an incredibly sympathetic character.
It is in this vein that Lizzie shines. She’s a character you can emphasize with and that is no small feat considering the subject matter in question. You do not envy her situation or her options and if Lizzie’s goal as a film is to make you take her side in the murders, it does that very well. I learned after my viewing that Chloë Sevigny has been trying to make this film happen for a while and the fact this is a passion project comes through at times, especially in her portrayal of Lizzie. Though learning they originally wanted to make a limited HBO series I can’t help but think that would have been the better option.
Lizzie isn’t without issues though. Primarily, the film takes a very long time to get to the thing we all know is going to happen. It is played up a bit as a mystery (i.e. who really did it?) for most of the film but even the film doesn’t seem to think it’s a surprise in the end. This causes the middle of the film to really drag on for what feels like forever. Lizzie jumps around a bit from pre-murder to trial and would have likely benefited from using the trial as a framing device for the story throughout, rather than just the end.
Lastly, much of the film feels “suffocating” because it largely takes place within a single home and features many uncomfortably close, closeups. In some ways this helps to set the tone (the house feels suffocating to the viewer much like it does for Lizzie) but it doesn’t feel intentional. The reality is that this lower budget film that probably never had the set/production design to do wide shots of 1892 America. Understandable. The fact I was thinking this during the movie however is a problem.
I saw Lizzie on a whim, having heard or seen nothing about the film prior (a rare circumstance for myself). What I found was a well acted and well written film that takes a highly controversial figure from American history and successfully updates their story for the modern audience. Lizzie does this while also making her interesting and sympathetic. Lizzie isn’t interested in whether or not Lizzie Borden murdered her parents, rather it wants to examine why, which is the far more interesting story. While it does drag on at times and the characters outside of the two leads are a bit shallow, Lizzie mostly succeeds in its’ goal.
Final Rating: 6.5/10
GoG Break Down:
How it was viewed: Theater
Running time: 1hr 46m
Recommend viewing: Netflix or similar
Why you should see it: Lizzie does a great job of making Lizzie Borden a sympathetic character and is an interesting, modern, take on this murder mystery that has fascinated Americans for over a century.
Why you shouldn’t see it: The movie is ultimately all about justifying existence of a couple scenes that last all of 10-15 minutes.