Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 6, 2020)
Back before “true crime” occupied the public imagination on a consistent basis, the tale of Lizzie Borden turned into a major scandal. Those real-life events become the focus of the fictionalized 2018 film Lizzie.
Set in Fall River, Massachusett circa 1892, the Borden clan exists as pillars of the community. Though 32 years old, Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) still lives at home with her domineering father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) and older sister Emma (Kim Dickens).
Into this setting steps Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), an Irish immigrant who gets work for the Bordens as a maid. Before long, she and Lizzie develop a friendship.
Eventually, Bridget and Lizzie become exceedingly close, and Lizzie’s relationship with her parents goes downhill. When someone brutally murders the elder Bordens, Lizzie turns into the prime suspect.
Do kids still know the old rhyme about how Lizzie Borden gave her mother “40 whacks” and her dad “41”? That probably remains the primary public memory of Lizzie, one that likely detaches her from the notion of reality.
By that I mean many may not know a real Lizzie existed. The rhyme makes it sound like she’s a Grimm fairy tale character, not an actual person.
It surprises me that Hollywood hasn’t more frequently explored Lizzie’s tale. Not that it’s been left untouched, of course, but it seems like such a natural subject for cinematic drama – and horror – that I’d think it’d get more frequent life in movies and on TV.
Perhaps because it assumes audience foreknowledge of the murders, Lizzie doesn’t make the viewer wait for them. The film opens with her parents dead and backtracks from there.
This seems like a good choice, as otherwise the viewer may become impatient to get to the character’s claim to fame. Granted, that doesn’t mean every well-known story needs to open with its most famous parts - Titanic would look silly if it began with the sinking – but in this instance, it makes sense.
I feel that way due to the “fairy tale” side of things. So few people enjoy awareness of Lizzie Borden beyond the simple rhyme that the movie’s quick reveal of the murders works to ground the tale before it goes into greater depth.
Thus ends the Positive Plot Portrayal part of this review. After that wise choice, Lizzie tends toward clichés and becomes a slow dirge of a movie.
One that doesn’t appear to hew terribly closely to the facts, too. Though Lizzie offers a clear depiction of who dunnit, how and why, in reality no killer was ever identified, so only speculation remains, and the film differs from history in other ways.
That said, Lizzie doesn’t pretend to offer a documentary, so the viewer should judge it more on its cinematic merits than its accuracy. Unfortunately, it comes up short in that domain as well.
Less a story and more a collection of predictable themes, Lizzie offers too much of a 21st century perspective on a 19th century story. Heck, in this disc’s featurette, the film’s screenwriter even refers to the real Borden as a “proto-feminist icon”, which seems like a massive stretch given the vagueness of our understanding of the actual history.
But Lizzie clearly wants to become a feminist parable, and it strives so eagerly to cram the story into its preconceived notions that it goes awry. So much comes at us from a skewed modern-day POV that the film feels trite and heavy-handed.
No one can mistake Lizzie for a subtle film. It paints men as lecherous, abusive pigs, and women all come across as long-suffering saints.
This leads to one of the movie’s more evident contradictions, as we don’t feel that Lizzie’s stepmother Abby “deserves” her death. As painted here, it appears she dies mainly for cynical reasons.
Abby gets killed first, and the film claims that under the law, this means the husband’s family inherits the estate. If Andrew died before her, Abby’s clan would’ve gotten everything.
While Lizzie doesn’t paint Abby as a tremendously sympathetic character, it also doesn’t make her a villain, so we don’t see that she “needs to die” ala the cruel, oppressive Andrew. We thus see Abby’s death as a calculated move by Lizzie to ensure she and Emma inherit the estate.
If Lizzie didn’t work overtime to make us empathize with its title character, this wouldn’t matter. If the story depicted her as a psychotic nutbag, let that axe fall where it may!
But because the film wants us to accept Lizzie as a feminist hero who fights back against the patriarchy, the murder of Abby becomes an inconvenient truth – and a perplexing one. Since the movie takes so many historical liberties anyway, why not shove Abby into the standard “evil stepmother” category so we’ll find justification for her death?
Because Lizzie so desperately wants a “women good, men bad” theme, I guess. It can’t allow any female characters to seem despicable, just like it doesn’t allow any males a glimmer of humanity.
These factors leave Lizzie as an awfully one-dimensional film. We find a tale that cares much more about its social themes than its narrative merits, and that makes it an eye-rolling disappointment.