Craig William Macneil has produced a conflicted feature in Lizzie. There’s passion on screen in the form of the film’s star and producer Chloë Sevigny, whose devotion to the project has spanned almost a decade, but only in flights of brief delirium does the script match her. Although the production is strong, and soundscape marvellous, it’s hard not to feel like you are watching a scabrous melodrama repackaged for arthouse audiences. For all its qualities, Marshall’s is a film strapped by the corset of period drama biography.
Lizzie tells the infamous – possibly un-famous outside the US these days – story of the late nineteenth century Massachusetts murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, father and step mother of Marshall’s titular femme fatale. Here, Sevigny plays the headstrong Lizzie – whose feminist ideation has seemingly been issued divine damned by the regular fits she is subject to – while Jamey Sheridan and Fiona Shaw barely register as Andrew and Abby. The same fate befalls Kim Dickens, in the role of Lizzie’s sister Emma, but Kristen Stewart fares better as the family’s demure housemaid Bridget. As the film progressive, an underplayed – entirely fictional – sexual frisson begins to draw Bridget and Lizzie together, before leading to a climax in which screenwriter Bryce Kass speculates wildly as to what actually happened on 4 August 1892.
That the Borden case has continued to intrigue generations across two millennia is hardly surprising. For one, Lizzie Borden was acquitted in court and no further charges were made; for another, it was a brutal affair. Whomever it was, the villain of the tale walked away having implanted their axe into Abby eighteen times and Andrew a further eleven. In Marshall’s film, such gristle is reserved for the final act, naturally, with those preceding glacially sailing on waves of tension derived from Jeff Russo unnerving score. A flashback framework ensures that the looming threat of the film’s conclusion remains a conscious endpoint, whilst the repetitive visual recourse of Marshall’s camera to a ready to strike axe in a bucket proves far more effective a symbol than the tired metaphor of birds in a cage. There’s nothing flattering about being compared to a pigeon.
Noah Greenberg oozes a neatly dingy aesthetic through the film’s lens, bringing out the most of the Bordens’ shadowed home, and working in harmony with the production’s sound team to empower a tremendous sensory impact. Each creek reverberates and every footstep loudly harkens its arrival into each and every room of the house. No scene comes without a roar from the film’s audio and there’s a case to be made here that the Borden house – that sole objective witness of the massacre – is as integral a character as any of those humans within it. When Lizzie disregards her father‘s command that she may not leave the house, it is not he whom she seeks to escape: ‘the theatre’s my only rest-bite from this place’. This, at least, Marshall achieves with tremendous success.
The film’s principle problem lies in its continuation of such restraint within the flow of its storytelling. A failing of Marshall to maintain consistent tension renders stretches of his work lacking, certainly when set against more adventurous spells like the bold and cathartic climax. This is not the first time the story of Lizzie Borden has been adapted for screen and it’s a pity Lizzie doesn’t stand more apart from its predecessors. Sevigny and Stewart are great but deserve meatier employment.