I f there’s one thing most people know about Lizzie Borden, it’s that she took and axe and gave her father 40 whacks (and followed that up by giving her mother 41). The full version of this catchy little folk rhyme, however, conveniently ignores the fact that she was tried and acquitted for these alleged crimes. Of course, acquitted doesn’t mean not guilty, and thus the Borden murders remain probably the best known unsolved crimes in the history of Fall River, Massachusetts.
Screenwriter Bryan Kass and director Craig William Macneill have a clear theory about who did what to whom, and the murders are presented explicitly on screen (if graphic violence or bare breasts offend you, this is a movie you might want to skip). The point of the film is not solving the mystery, however, but creating the context in which they occur, while delivering the plot with such exquisite visual storytelling by cinematographer Noah Greenberg that the film could almost work with no dialogue at all.
Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) was a domestic tyrant of a type that was acceptable in 19thcentury America. Although rich, he refuses to have modern conveniences installed in the family home, and regards the female members of the household as slaves to his whims. His second wife Abby (Fiona Shaw) has ceased to offer any resistance, as has his older daughter Emma (Kim Dickens), but the younger daughter, Lizzie, (Chloë Sevigny) is in a constant state of rebellion. Although her gender bars her from taking a meaningful place in the world, Lizzie is involved in various Christian and charitable organizations, and also does “scandalous” things like attending the theater without a male escort.
Lizzie has a physical disorder that causes her to occasionally have seizures, and 19thcentury medicine didn’t have much to offer her in terms of either diagnosis or treatment. While she has always recovered at home and continued on with her life, it’s the kind of thing that could provide an excuse to put her “away” in an asylum, where she would likely be abused and neglected. Apparently the threat of involuntary commitment has already been made more than once, because Emma mentions it while chastizing Lizzie for taking unnecessary risks.
When Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) comes to be the Borden’s live-in maid, Lizzie immediately sees her as a kindred spirit (notably, Lizzie calls Bridget by her correct name, while the other family members call her “Maggie”, as they do all servants). Sparks fly, and despite an almost complete absence of privacy, they find a way to be together. At the same time, Andrew has appointed his brother-in-law John Morse (Denis O’Hare) as executor of his will, meaning that when Andrew dies John will control the purse strings. and thus have power over, Lizzie, Emma, and Abby. John is an all-around despicable character, but since he has Y chromosomes, he gets to have an independent life and wield authority over women who, if the law allowed, could organize their own lives perfectly well.
Lizzie is a study in how many small cruelties, combined with a monumental imbalance of power, can lead to tragedy. I don’t know if the version of events portrayed in this film is the correct one, but it’s certainly convincing. It also provides a cautionary tale for our times, when inequality is increasing and many basic human rights are threatened. | Sarah Boslaugh