From the moment newspaper accounts of the Aug. 4, 1892 murders of Andrew Jackson Borden and his wife, Abby Durfee Gray, in Fall River, Massachusetts were first published, the public's fascination with the guilt or innocence of younger daughter Lizzie Andrew Borden has been insatiable.
For all that is known about the case, gaps in the public record have been filled in by popular imagination. Consequently, the act of creating a fictionalized version of real events is freighted with its own set of unique challenges. This is especially true when the story in question involves accusations of parricide and speculation as to motive.
A popular children's skipping rope rhyme from the era perfectly encapsulates this dilemma:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
First, the jury found Lizzie Borden not guilty June 10, 1893 after only 90 minutes of deliberation. Second, neither victim was whacked close to that many times.
The new film, Lizzie, directed by Craig William Macneill, takes on this same challenge of taking dramatic license with an infamous true crime story.
A filmed theory of the case is different from a written story in that it doesn't leave much wiggle room for the audience. You just see it happening. The movie outright shows Lizzie committing the murders. But, given that this is the accepted modern wisdom of the case, it hardly counts as a spoiler.
Where the agreed-upon facts of the case end, the creative storytelling begins. The film follows the conception—popularized by Ed McBain's 1984 novel of the same name—that Andrew, played by Jamey Sheridan, discovered live-in Irish maid Bridget Sullivan, played by Kristen Stewart, and Lizzie, played by Chloë Sevigny, engaged in a discreet affair. And, before that, the script also suggests that Andrew cheated on Abby with (an unwilling) Bridget. Lizzie's maternal uncle, John Morse, played by Dennis O'Hare, is also portrayed in a less-than-flattering light.
The casting of the leads was inspired. Fans of the HBO show Big Love will immediately recognize Sevigny as being perfect for the role. (Few other actors could wear dresses like that and make it look natural.) Freed from the stilted material offered by the Twilight movies, Stewart gives a powerful, understated performance. And, Sheridan, who channels the same menace he brought to his turn as Randall Flagg in the TV miniseries version of The Stand, makes for a well-cast villain as the doomed patriarch.
Unlike, say, gunshots, axe murder is an inherently up-close proposition. Similarly, this film features a claustrophobic production which forces the viewer directly into the lives of the characters. Scenes seldom feature more than two or three actors at a time, and the realities of the Bordens' lack of modern lighting make the walls of the drab house close in on one another ever further. Candles are carried up and down staircases, even in the day.
One wonders how the story told here would change if Lizzie had a healthy cadre of living descendants to defend her memory. As it stands, she lived the remainder of her days in Fall River as a recluse before dying 35 years after the murders. Those interested in the case should certainly keep digging for the truth. The script here is said to be based on a true story, and this is all we can ask of a production which doesn't seek to be filed as a documentary. However, the more times a story is told, the more firmly the details are cemented in the public imagination.
Beyond the particulars of the true story recreated here, the film seeks to use this as a framework to communicate larger themes of patriarchal repression. Set during a time when women were little more than property, Lizzie is depicted by the filmmakers as striking out at the suffocation of her circumstance in a manner that somehow feels as necessary as it is disturbing.
Given the limits of the primitive forensic detective tools available at the time, we'll probably never know what really happened. The theory put forward by Lizzie is just as plausible as any, though. And, this update of a well-worn tale, made for a new audience, is certainly worth watching.