Cinema might be my greatest passion and interest, but something that certainly finds itself comfortably in the top five is true crime. From Forensic Files to The Jinx to any number of awesome podcasts, true crime is probably the thing that sends me in to more Wikipedia holes than any other topic. You can imagine my excitement, then, on the occasions when my two great fascinations come together.
Set in 1892, Lizzie is a film that tells one of the many theorised versions of the story of Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny), a 19th century American socialite who was put on trial, and later acquitted, for the axe murders of her father and step mother. At 32 years of age with a ‘social outcast’ persona and very much under the strict, oppressive rule of her father (played by Jamey Sheridan), Lizzie forms an intimate connection with new housemaid Bridget (Kristen Stewart), and after parental threats to both send her to an institution and separate her from her new friend, Lizzie decides to take things in to her own hands with drastic and bloody consequences.
On the face of things, you would think that a period drama involving an illicit lesbian affair and a double murder would be sure to catch fire and pop off, but the real shame about Lizzie is that it doesn’t reach those heights as often as it should. There is certainly enough interesting content within the narrative to make for a perfectly fine viewing experience, but even someone with my personal level of true crime interest can’t deny that the film approaches dullness on several occasions. Having said that, the built up tension and stand out imagery of the final third of the picture, the ‘business end’ if you will, does at least provide a big punch at the death (pun intended). There is definitely more than a hint of the vibe of something like Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, another story about intense female friendships/relationships and the lengths gone to in order to eliminate the obstacles and threats to said relationships. If those kinds of dynamics and themes are something that interests you on the big screen, then Lizzie is certainly worth a watch.
There is no doubting that the overall story is an engrossing one, and Lizzie is by no means a bad movie, it’s main fault is the fact that it is just a tiny bit pedestrian in its build up, with a finale that, although shocking and exhilarating to watch, perhaps isn’t quite enough to balance out the dry, slightly plodding tone of the preceding 50 or 60 minutes. Gripping enough thanks to a strong finish, but perhaps not quite as gripping as the details of the narrative had the potential to be.
The ‘solid but not sensational’ overall feel of the film is very much how you could describe all of the performances on screen. As the titular Lizzie Borden, Chloë Sevigny is stoic, strange and certainly believable as a damaged woman capable of making such incredible, fatal decisions. Sevigny possesses a staring, unnerving quality that fits the character to a tee, and whilst she doesn’t break new ground or stake any kind of awards claim with her performance, it is definitely an enigmatic and interesting leading turn.
As Bridget, Kristen Stewart proves to be an alluring and compelling scene partner. Hers is mostly a reactionary performance to the work of characters around her, but Stewart asserts a degree of appealing agency in the depiction of the personal relationship between Lizzie and Bridget, and also offers some important moral conscience in a final third that could other wise have seemed overwhelmingly cold and mechanical. Together, the two actresses have a palpable chemistry, a huge positive given the large stakes of the narrative, and not always something that films of this nature manage to achieve.
Jamey Sheridan and Fiona Shaw are suitably unlikable as Lizzie’s father and step mother. Sheridan’s infuriating active villainy effectively provides the primary impetus for the blood soaked actions of the finale, but Shaw’s detached, active disinterest and blind eye turning to the series of messes occurring in her house adds and important layer of frustration to the desperate feeling of Lizzie’s situation. Further supporting roles are given by Denis O’Hare and Kim Dickens, and whilst all involved are perfectly good, Sevigny remains that only cast member that comes anywhere close to being ‘stand out’.
Overall, Lizzie certainly scratches the itch of a true crime fan like myself, any deep dive in to one of the most talked about murder cases of the 19th century is a treat in my book. It has some movie star heft to it, but more often than not feels decidedly TV. High quality TV, but TV nonetheless. It’s not likely to blow you away, but it has just enough about it to be an engaging first time watch. Whether there is enough depth and execution to warrant a second viewing, I’m not so sure.