Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - Lizzie

Although most peo­ple only know the ba­sics of the story, the tale of Lizzie Bor­den is a fa­mil­iar part of the fab­ric of Amer­i­can mythol­ogy. On Aug. 4, 1892, the thirty-two-year-old Bor­den mur­dered her wealthy fa­ther and step­mother at their home in Fall River, Mass­a­chu­setts, with an axe. She be­came a celebrity for the crime, for which she was tried and ac­quit­ted. Her deed never faded from the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion.

With Hal­loween draw­ing near, it would be tempt­ing to view a film about Lizzie Bor­den as a hor­ror movie with a crazy-eyed, axe-swing­ing lady com­ing for you in your night­mares. What writer Bryce Kass and di­rec­tor Craig Wil­liam Macneill have cre­ated does in­deed fol­low many tropes of the thriller genre, but we see the world through the eyes of Lizzie (Chloë Se­vi­gny). The hor­ror as­pects of the film per­tain to the way women are boxed in and made help­less, par­tic­u­larly in Lizzie’s era.

Her fa­ther An­drew ( Jamey Sheri­dan) serves as the vil­lain of this film. Af­ter the death of Lizzie’s mother, An­drew’s mar­riage to Abby (Fiona Shaw) per­turbs Lizzie and her sis­ter Emma (Kim Dick­ens), who feel that Abby and her fam­ily are com­ing to strip the Bor­dens of their for­tune. An­drew stalks the house, his big frame fill­ing the small rooms, emo­tion­ally abus­ing Lizzie and sex­u­ally abus­ing Brid­get Sul­li­van (Kris­ten Ste­wart), the Ir­ish maid who stays with them and with whom Lizzie has found com­pan­ion­ship.

Lizzie’s op­tions to pro­tect­ing her­self, Brid­get, and her for­tune are so lim­ited as to be suf­fo­cat­ing. She clearly suf­fers from men­tal health is­sues in ad­di­tion to seizures, which pre­vent her from be­ing more of a so­cialite. By the time she picks up the axe, we view it not as a re­sult not of mad­ness but as a woman choos­ing one of the few op­tions for au­ton­omy that are avail­able to her.

The mur­ders book­end the film. They ap­pear first in flashback, ad­her­ing closely to the re­ported facts of the case. The script then takes us back three months and works its way up to the mur­ders, this time pur­su­ing al­ter­na­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties as to what hap­pened, fo­cus­ing on the love af­fair be­tween Lizzie and Brid­get. The the­ory that they were lovers, and that the mur­ders were in­spired by An­drew’s moves to squash the af­fair, is not a new one, but moves that the­ory into a prom­i­nent place in the nar­ra­tive, sug­gest­ing the two women were life pre­servers for one an­other. Like ev­ery­thing in the film, their se­cret is han­dled taste­fully with an un­der­stated touch.

Ul­ti­mately, the movie suf­fers for its in­evitabil­ity, not only be­cause we are so fa­mil­iar with the mur­ders, but be­cause Macneill leans a lit­tle too heav­ily on the fa­mil­iar me­chan­ics of a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller. Its por­trayal of An­drew Bor­den is so vil­lain­ous that he veers into car­i­ca­ture, and sev­eral scenes too plainly con­vey the themes or fore­shadow fu­ture events, fol­low­ing a too well-trod­den path.

But the film is none­the­less hand­somely staged and su­perbly acted. Ste­wart and Se­vi­gny are two of our finest and most ad­ven­tur­ous ac­tresses, both in the roles they choose and the way they ap­proach them with a com­bi­na­tion of mys­tery and fear­less­ness. Any movie fea­tur­ing this duo in­evitably in­vokes a thrill. — Robert Ker

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