The nursery rhyme might have overstated matters a bit, but the story of Borden has been one that has intrigued the public since a pair of murders — to the main character’s stepmother and then her father — took place in 1892 in Fall Rivers, Massachusetts. The new psychological thriller “Lizzie,” with a surprising lesbian relationship at its core, opens next week in Atlanta theaters.
Chloe Sevigny, also serving as producer for a long-time passion project for her, stars in the film as Lizzie. In director Craig William Macneill’s take, the character lives at home with her rich but frugal father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw), and sister Emma (Kim Dickens). Lizzie is a lonely woman, prone to epileptic fits. Andrew is abusive and he and Abby routinely threaten to send Lizzie to an institution. Lizzie’s life changes, though, with the arrival of Bridget (Stewart), a young woman who joins the household as a maid and becomes known to them as Maggie. A bond develops between the women, as does a slow-building relationship. When it’s discovered by Andrew, he calls Lizzie an abomination and threatens to end Bridget’s employment. Eventually both Andrew and Abby are brutally murdered and Lizzie is brought up on charges that she did it, despite testimony of her innocence from Bridget.
The screenplay by Bryce Kass starts with the discovery of the bodies, then flashes back six months to the arrival of Bridget, then fast forwards again to the trial and arrest of Lizzie. It’s a rather unsatisfying story-telling device, never really showing the build-up to the murder.
Kass also takes easy outs, being quick to point out that the father was cruel and abusive. In this revisionist take, he paints Lizzie as a victim. It’s hard to care about anyone here. I’m not sure how sympathetic audiences will be for an axe murderer and her accomplice, no matter how much groundwork Kass tries to establish.
The comfort the two women take in each other is the movie’s saving grace, with some discreet moments of passion. The central love story ultimately doesn’t hold up. One moment, the two women seem connected and later Bridget realizes Lizzie isn’t who she thought she was. There isn’t much chemistry either. Sevigny’s Lizzie is expressionless to a fault and even Stewart often looks mildly bored. Shaw, too, is wasted in a shapeless role. Denis O’Hare as Andrew’s conniving brother and Dickens do liven the film up some in support. “If my sister hangs … you will regret it the rest of your life,” Emma naps to Bridget.
The film was shot in Savannah back in 2016 and debuted at this year’s Sundance to mixed reviews. It has a great cast and some splendid, atmospheric cinematography by Noah Greenberg. (The film purposely lacks any color until the final passages.) In a year that has seen strong lesbian product in “Disobedience,” “Becks,” and “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” however, this is rather disappointing. It wants to be a period piece, a thriller, a feminist statement, and a lesbian romance all at once and it never really succeeds at any of those.