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 later. 

            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.


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association