Everyone already knows the story of Lizzie Borden, a 19th Century woman from a well-to-do New England family who was accused and then acquitted of murdering her father and step-mother. Borden has become a myth in pop culture, her story recounted through music, novels, and even the TV show “Supernatural.” The horror streaming service Shudder recently debuted a fresh take on the story, obtaining exclusive rights to the film Lizzie, which manages to humanize Borden in the face of her puritanical father.
Chloë Sevigny as Lizzie Borden and Kristen Stewart as Bridget Sullivan
Directed by Craig William Macneill, Lizzie stars Chloë Sevigny as Borden and Kristen Stewart as the Irish maid Bridget Sullivan. Because Borden was acquitted and the murders are still technically unsolved, the film is able to offer a unique take on a rehashed story. At the core of the narrative is a relationship between Borden and Sullivan, who can’t deny their attraction for each other. Sevigny and Stewart’s chemistry is the film’s real strength, especially when they first come in contact with each other, either hiding in each other’s bedrooms, away from the gaze of the tyrannical patriarch Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan), or brushing against each other in the upstairs hallway. The sexual tension builds as the film progresses, until they finally kiss, but not without consequences, as Andrew catches them and later calls his daughter an abomination.
The film’s main flaw is that the relationship between Borden and Sullivan is not given sufficient room to breathe and develop, despite the nearly two-hour run time. Frankly, there aren’t enough scenes of them together. Near the end of the film, when Sullivan visits Borden in jail she asks, “What am I to you?” In the last 20 minutes, a narrative is spun regarding Borden’s recruitment of Sullivan to help with the murders and topple a sexually abusive patriarch, but with more character development, it indeed would have been clearer what Sullivan is to Borden. Is their relationship real and meaningful? Is it just lust? Was Borden merely using Sullivan to commit murder and obtain independence? It’s never fully clear, but when Sevigny and Stewart are on screen together, committing what Andrew labels “an abomination,” their energy is palpable.
Watch the trailer for Lizzie:
Lizzie does succeed in humanizing Borden, especially when she confronts her abusive father or her womanizing uncle John Morse (Denise O’Hare), who is determined to steal her inheritance. This Lizzie is bold and outspoken, willing to challenge the repressive gender norms of the time, including those that exist within her family. The film also touches upon mental illness and madness, namely how Lizzie is an outsider within her family because of spells (epilepsy, maybe?), but again, these scenes and this story arc aren’t given enough time to really develop. The concept of mental illness and women depicted as mad is a strong trope in both literature and film and by not exploring it in Lizzie, it very much feels like a missed opportunity.
While much of the film is a slow-moving drama, heavy on dialogue and scenes that primarily contain only two characters in a frame, the last 20 minutes are a blood-fueled trip that will please horror fans. By these final moments, after witnessing Andrew’s resentment towards Lizzie and his sexual abuse towards Sullivan, viewers won’t gripe when he finally gets his.
Lizzie is an intriguing take on a well-known story, which generally makes the viewer feel empathy towards Borden, whose lesbian tryst was an affront to her high-society family and social norms of the late 19th Century. The real highlight of the film is Stewart and Sevigny’s scenes together. If only there were more of them.
Overall score: 7/10