How's this for a century-old skipping rope rhyme:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Well, actually, it was Lizzie's stepmother, who suffered 18 blows,
and Lizzie's father was struck eleven times, but this was August 4, 1892,
and forensic science hadn't quite elevated to the CSI stage.
But this catchy little ryhme indicates what a national sensation
was created by the event, kind of like the O.J. Simpson Trial a century
On August 4, 1892, the “#MeToo” movement was still 125 years in
the future, and a patriarchal society was a given, and not only that, any
relationship other than heterosexual was considered strictly illicit (no
“Love Wins” movement, either).
Director Craig William Macneill builds up simmering tensions in the
Borden household. Andrew
(Jamey Sheridan), the head of the house, is depicted as a cold, distant,
humorless businessman. His two
grown daughters live at home, along with his second wife (after his first
wife, the mother of his daughters, died).
An Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), comes to live
with them, and is given a small upstairs room and her afternoons free.
Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny), the older daughter, is quite open in her
rebellion against her stern father's authority.
She is determined to go to the opera, even when her father has
expressly forbidden it, because it just wasn't done for a woman to be
unaccompanied at such an important social event.
Lizzie has a “spell” during the performance, and has to be
brought home to recover, which further embarrasses her status-conscious
father. There is also
obviously no love lost between Lizzie and her stepmother, Abby (Fiona
Shaw). Curiously, the younger daughter, Emma (Kim Dickens) is a
non-factor, except she isn't exactly a delight to be around, either.
And she's also condescending to the housemaid, but that's hardly
unusual in any era.
Director Macneill, following the script by Bryce Kass, then decides
to imply a strong lesbian connection between Lizzie and Bridget (whom the
family calls “Maggie,” presumably because that's what all Irish maids
were called). When Andrew
suspects this, he is furious, though he is depicted as that most loathsome
of landed gentry, the one who thinks the female hired hands are his
“property” and he can do what he pleases with them.
Bridget is hardly in a position to refuse, which of course, only
makes his perfidy even more heinous.
At first, Director Macneill teases us with a sequence where we're
not sure exactly how the murders of Andrew and Abby took place, but as if
to express the tension on a different plane, he shows us quite starkly how
a stark-naked Lizzie did the deed. Though
she was arrested, and jailed through her trial, the jury acquited her.
Well, as in the storied O.J. debacle,
we're still not sure exactly what happened, though there are no shortages
of theories. The movie
“Lizzie” provides us with one plausible scenario.
It's a strange combination of starched collars, long dresses,
ripped bodices, and blood-spattered lace curtains, complete with a
fright-film orchestral score. And
do we take any solace in the fact that the real Lizzie Borden didn't
exactly live happily ever after? No
Instant Karma here. Just a slow-burn period piece.