The tale of Lizzie Borden has been told in rhyme and on screen before. In 1975, Elizabeth Montgomery led TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden. The less said of 2013’s “nude film” Lizzie Borden’s Revenge, the better. Finally, in 2014, Christina Ricci played the titular tool wielder in Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, followed by a series. After these average to abysmal affairs, director Craig William Macneill (The Boy) and screenwriter Bryce Kass have fashioned what’s close to a prestige feature, and the first big screen film version of Borden’s bloody tale.
Instead of lazily charting the pre-trodden path from a grimy, exploitative perspective, Kass crafts multifaceted characters, fortified by disturbing family drama and taut plotting. These, when mined under Macneill’s burrowing eye, and with outstanding performances, make Lizzie (the film) a disquieting, absorbing and unforgettable drama/thriller, topped with the obligatory mum and dad hacking.
The story starts on August 4th 1892, immediately after the double patricide, but swiftly sifts back six months to when the affluent Borden household hire young, Irish maid Bridget (Kristen Stewart). Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) is a wary but determined young adult, turned troubled whilst living under threat from her controlling, obdurate father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan): an abusive land owner, and mostly dutiful mother Abby (Fiona Shaw). Lizzie becomes friends with Bridget, but mind cracks spread when Dad becomes monstrous. Paranoia, power play and physical assaults soon cause Lizzie to take “drastic measures” to ensure her and Bridget’s safety.
Lizzie (the film) is enthralling for the better part due to the constantly changing character play and Oscar-worthy performances. Macneill and Kass plait tension through plotting, alongside an unsettling score (groaning, distorted strings) which seethes, roars and fluctuates throughout. Internal and outer conflicts with(in) Lizzie are controlled and calm to start, but threats/ altercations lead to motive forming and madness, unveiling darker sides to all.
After the slashing, Lizzie gets a little tedious. The story clicks into courtroom drama mode coupled with scenes featuring Borden waiting for release or execution. For the first two thirds, Macneill’s film is a captivating, lavish (for the budget) near classic with tight plotting, budding tension and staggering drama/acting, enriched with feminism and (fitting for the time) male power play parables. These combine to make Lizzie resound as a generally potent production and the best film about Borden by a long shot, so far.
The 62nd BFI London Film Festival runs from 10 – 21 October. Tickets available now from www.bfi.org.uk/lff