Monday, December 17, 2018

Movie Review: Lizzie

Lizzie *** / *****
Directed by: Craig William Macneill.
Written by: Bryce Kass.
Starring: Kristen Stewart (Bridget Sullivan), Chloƫ Sevigny (Lizzie Borden), Kim Dickens (Emma Borden), Fiona Shaw (Abby Borden), Denis O'Hare (John Morse), Jeff Perry (Andrew Jennings), Jamey Sheridan (Andrew Borden), Tara Ochs (Susan Gilbert), Jay Huguley (William Henry Moody), Tom Thon (Prof. Wood), Daniel Wachs (Dr. Bowen), Roscoe Sandlin (Judge Blaisdell).
There have been many versions of Lizzie Borden’s story told before, probably because the case in many ways was a forerunner of the tabloid fascination with murder that continues to this day in America, and because the story itself is so malleable that you make whatever kind of film you want to out of it. Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie is the latest version, and it’s an odd little film. The material could very easily go over-the-top – this version has pigeon murder, lesbian love affairs, fainting spells and, when the infamous murders arrive, the film doesn’t spare the blood – and are committed when naked women. And yet, Macneill and company have made a film that feels restrained – muted in tone, presenting over-the-top material, in an understated fashion. I’m not sure it all quite works, but it’s an interesting film to watch.
Lizzie here is played by Chloe Sevigny – one of the great risk taking actresses of her generation. Her Lizzie is modern in many ways – she openly defies her father (Jamey Sheridan) and hates her stepmother (Fiona Shaw), who she thinks is a gold digger, she shows no interest in getting a husband, and can be quick witted when challenged in public by other members of her upper class. The problem, of course, is this is still 1892 – and as a woman, she has no rights or privileges herself, and has expectations put upon her. She worries her stepmother will get all the money, or that her uncle John (Denis O’Hare) will when her father dies. And she really, truly does hate her father – who is practically a mustache twirling villain here – as he kills all her pigeons (and then serves them for dinner) when she defies him. The thing that pushes her over-the-edge though is the arrival of Bridget (Kristen Stewart) – the family’s new maid. The two have an instant connection with each other – and that connection goes from furtive glances, to much more. When Lizzie discovers that her father has been raping Bridget repeatedly – and Bridget powerless to stop it (if she leaves, he will make it impossible to get a new job) – the pair of them hatch their plan, although Lizzie is more committed than Bridget.
Although in terms of story, the murders happen around the half way point in the story, we don’t actually see them until right near the end. There have been many theories over the years of just what happened and who did it – although that part seems pretty obvious. The more interesting question is the why Lizzie did it. This movie stacks the deck so far in Lizzie’s favor it almost seems reasonable that she would hack two people to death with an axe. Her father and stepmother are horrible – they are given no nuance, no inner life to speak of – and her uncle isn’t much better. Her sister (Kim Dickens) is barely in the film at all (a waste of a very talented actress). The “solution” to the murder here isn’t really based on fact – but makes sense in the context of the movie.
The heart of the movie is the chemistry between Sevigny and Stewart, which really is great. Stewart continues to be one of the best actresses around – she does so much, while seemingly doing so little. She is quiet here – she has an Irish accent (but fortunately, doesn’t sound like she’s going to start pitching Lucky Charms). This is the perfect kind of role for her – as she has to behave one way, and express emotions in another – and she pulls it off. Sevigny makes some bigger choices to be sure as Lizzie - she has expressed some disappointment in the movie – she wanted it to be bigger and more rousing – and that shows – but they work in context. Perhaps the movie Sevigny wanted this to be would have been better – perhaps a miniseries, which she initially envisioned, would have been even better than that (it feels like it could be a longer piece). What we have is a film that in some ways seems to be at war with itself – and that, in its own right, is very interesting.

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