In 2010, Chloe Sevigny, the coolest babe around, had an idea: to bring a new imagining of the story of assumed ax murder, Lizzie Borden, to life. It was her passion project. But, after HBO cancelled the miniseries, it took seven years to finally achieve her dream. Unfortunately, the final version of Sevigny’s dream, Lizzie, is missing something. Despite the sexual tension between Lizzie and live-in maid, Bridget, and the bloody axe murders, it pains me to say that Lizzie is surprisingly boring and uninspired.
Lizzie is an attempt at a lesbian and feminist retelling of Lizzie Borden’s story. Lizzie is a middle-aged woman from 1890s New England who lives with her oppressive father, Andrew Borden (Jamey Sullivan) and stepmother (Fiona Shaw). She’s defiant, fighting back against her father whenever she can. But this only makes her situation worse, leading to more punishments. She does find solace in the new maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart). They become friends and Lizzie teaches her to read. Eventually, this leads to a more romantic relationship. As they get closer, they hatch a plan to escape from her father’s tyranny. But did they actually commit the murder?
Lizzie focuses on the skewed gender dynamics during that time, and how they lead to such tension and frustration. In a particularly upsetting sequence, Andrew murders all of Lizzie’s pet pigeons as punishment, then feeds them to the family for dinner. You can see Lizzie is fed up with this treatment, which is emphasized with lingering shots on her face as she stares off into the distance or tries to bite her tongue when speaking with a man. This is a film showing the hell women suffered to merely exist in the time period. It is trying to justify why a daughter would kill her father in such a brutal way.
The film hits on these points of twisted gender dynamics, and even twisted class dynamics, but doesn’t hit them in a way that makes me emotionally invested in Lizzie’s plight. This was exceptionally frustrating to me while watching the film. I kept wanting to be almost excited for her to finally take an axe to her father’s smug face. But Lizzie moves so slowly that these points of tension fizzle out instead of building on to each other.
“The film hits on [..] twisted gender dynamics, and even twisted class dynamics, but doesn’t hit them in a way that makes me emotionally invested in Lizzie’s plight.”
Lizzie’s best moments are the ones between Lizzie and Bridget. The chemistry between Sevigny and Stewart is electric as they exchange light touches and long glances across the kitchen. Their relationship compelled me, particularly in terms of class dynamics. Does Lizzie really care about Bridget, or is she merely an outlet for frustration? Is she just manipulating Bridget? I wish that the film explored this fascinating look at female relationships more deeply.
Despite this chemistry, there are points in Lizzie where Sevigny seems bored with her role, as if she realizes this isn’t the film she set out to make. There are moments where she shines, especially when interacting with Stewart. However, as the film progresses and the stakes (supposedly) get higher, Sevigny’s performance seems to sputter out.
Lizzie had a promise. I mean, a lesbian, feminist re-imagining of Lizzie Borden’s infamous axe murders? I was ready to go. Director Craig William Macneill (The Boy) took a premise so fascinating and almost had it, but ultimately made something dull. Sevigny and Stewart’s performances couldn’t save a film that was trying to take itself a little too seriously. Sorry, but this film should get the axe.