You all know the story: The youngest daughter of a wealthy New England family is accused of having murdered her parents with a hatchet. Acquitted by a jury of her peers, she is nonetheless convicted in the court of public opinion, and her name becomes a byword for brutality to generations of Americans. Lizzie Borden’s story is a fascinating tale, with plenty of gray area for modern filmmakers to explore. It’s just too bad that director Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie avails itself of precious few of its subject’s inherent hooks.
There seems to be a prevailing assumption that period dramas need to be slower than cold molasses, at least if Lizzie is to be taken as any indication. Yes, it’s an interesting take on a notable true crime story; and yes, it’s relatively well-acted and passably easy to look at. But it’s also one of the most monotonous slogs I’ve seen in some time, especially when you consider that the foundational element of the film’s narrative is a naked axe murder, which should at least be visually interesting. Somehow, it’s not — seriously, how do you screw up a naked axe murder? The answer, apparently, is to build up to it so much over the course of a film that it loses all impact by the time you reveal the act itself.
Screenwriter Bryce Kass takes two unconventional approaches to his subject, one of which works better than the other. Kass has placed a sapphic relationship between Borden (Chloë Sevigny) and her housemaid Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) at his narrative’s emotional core, and both Sevigny and Stewart are scintillating in their shared screen time. If the central relationship and casting work, the structure does not — Kass choses a nonlinear architecture that revisits the crime scene several times but saves the killing itself for the second-act climax, leaving the entire third act for a meager courtroom drama that loses what little momentum had been achieved.
Even were the pacing not such an issue — and it absolutely is — Lizzie still would have fallen astray of greatness due to a number of stylistic affectations that just don’t seem to gel. There’s an awkward tendency toward handheld shaky cam on the part of Macneill that contraindicates the period setting with significant dissonance, and the borderline monochrome palette suggests prestige-picture aspirations that the film’s merits do not support. The shifting chronology may be the film’s biggest flaw, but that not withstanding, there are sufficient shortcomings to drag down an otherwise promising film.
It’s a shame that Sevigny and Stewart’s dynamic character work is undermined by avoidable pitfalls on the part of the writer and director precisely because Lizzie was so promising. In offering a degree of humanization to the butt of a bloody nursery rhyme, there’s ample room for solid storytelling. But Lizzie comes across as a case of unattained potential, snatching failure from the jaws of cinematic victory.