According to the well-known rhyme that has been chanted by children in playgrounds for decades, Lizzie Borden ‘took an axe / And gave her mother forty whacks / When she saw what she had done / She gave her father forty-one.’ Despite this explicit condemnation, Borden was actually deemed innocent by a jury at the time of her trial, all convinced that a woman of her social standing would be unable to commit such a heinous act of violence. A lot of mystery and conspiracy still surrounds the murders of Borden’s father and stepmother in Massachusetts in 1892, and the story has been adapted and retold in numerous ways, but Craig William Macneill’s latest take on the case adheres mostly to the limerick… give or take a few ‘whacks’.
The film begins in the immediate aftermath of the gruesome murders; blood spatters stain the pristeen walls while two dead bodies lie butchered on floor. The only two present in the house are Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny), and her housemaid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart). We are then transported back six months, and the movie does it’s best to depict how everything came to such a violent end. There are times in which Macneill does so effectively, but more often than not we are left none the wiser.
Whilst Lizzie’s relationship with her stepmother (Fiona Shaw) is incredibly frosty (she suspects her of having married her father purely for money), it is Mr. Borden (Jamey Sheridan) that is painted as the true villain of the story. He is an incredibly amoral figure, consumed by greed, and abuses his power in every aspect of his life. He seems totally disapproving of Lizzie from the outset, when he attempts to dissuade her from attending a theatre production on her own. But she is strong minded, and not only goes to the play but manages to get into an altercation with a woman in the powder room, before suffering an epileptic episode and collapsing in the aisle.
When new housemaid Bridget Sullivan arrives at the Borden’s home, her and Lizzie form a friendship that quickly escalates in intensity. Stewart plays Bridget with an innocence and timidity that is perfect for this role, accompanied by an equally impressive accent that is surprisingly convincing. Lizzie is horrified when she realises that her father has been sexually abusing Bridget on a nightly basis, and circumstances push the women further and further towards breaking point, all the while heightening their forbidden attraction for one another.
The shining lights of this film are the performances by Stewart and Sevigny, who are both at the top of their game. Sevigny plays Lizzie with a silent power, understated but all the while commanding the screen. Stewart, throughout the film, is stripped of her youthful glow, ravaged by the trials that she faces working for this family, and she brilliantly portrays the mounting tension that consumes her. The two actresses have done a fantastic job working with some perhaps problematic material.
The issues with this film lie elsewhere, mainly in the storytelling. We are often introduced to a plot tangent which then fails to be brought to fruition. For example, we are teased with Lizzie’s mysterious illness, but it is never fully explored, it only remains on the periphery. We are also deprived of a real picture of her persona outside of the house, or why her father feels so humiliated by her. A more intimate look into her character would have made all the difference in understanding her, as well as the family dynamic.
For all its flaws, the film looks phenomenal. The house, devoid of warmth and light, illuminates its inhabitants with harsh, grey daylight that is as brutal and unforgiving as the story itself. Brilliantly, cinematographer Noah Greenberg creates some of the most powerful scenes shot in near to pitch black, with only the flickering flame of a candle and the sinister creaking of floorboards to indicate that something horrific is occuring. The house becomes a character in itself, enveloping this family within and keeping their secrets.
While the take on the story has a lot of potential, it just falls short in creating an emotionally engaging feeling within it. That said, the plot holes can be largely forgiven due to the brilliant acting by it’s leads and the beautiful, mesmerising visuals. Sevigny and Stewart’s chemistry is palpable.
Crime, Biography | 15 | USA, 2018 | 8th April 2019 (UK) | DVD, Digital Download | Bulldog Film Distribution | Dir. Craig William Macneill| Chloë Sevigny,Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Denis O’Hare