Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Lizzie - 2018 film review

One session of The Art of the Whodunit programme that I discussed on Monday concerns true crime, and I was asked by one group member for my opinion of the Lizzie Borden case of 1892. It's not a case I've studied in detail, but I think there's a widespread consensus that Lizzie was guilty of the axe murders of her father and step-mother, despite being acquitted of the crimes (nobody else was ever charged). A long time ago I read a couple of novels inspired by it, written by Ed McBain and Walter Satterthwaite. And now I've just watched a film about the case made as recently as last year, Lizzie - the same title as McBain's novel.

I gather that this was a long-term project for Chloe Sevigny, who plays Lizzie, although she has been reported as being disappointed with the way it worked out. I have mixed feelings about the film. The cinematography is excellent, and Sevigny is a good actor. The sombre mood is sustained from start to finish, and the restraint of the film, with much of the story being told in flashback at a very measured pace, means that the depiction of the frenzied killings, portrayed in a vivid and in some ways oddly sensual manner, makes a melodramatic and effective contrast.

However, there are reservations. It seems to me that the local community of Fall River, in which the Bordens lived, is an important ingredient of the real life story. Yet apart from one scene, it hardly figures. The focus is on the domestic; I've read that this was due to budget constraints, but it's a pity. Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) is almost a caricature, a two-dimensional Horrid and Perverted Patriarch of the kind that we've become wearily familiar with in recent years. We certainly don't mourn his passing, and his wife (a very subdued Fiona Shaw) isn't much more appealing. Emma, Lizzie's sister, is an oddly shadowy figure; the part seems under-written.

The centrepiece of this version of the story, as with McBain's novel, is a lesbian relationship between Lizzie and the family maid (Kristen Stewart). This is done well, and poignantly. Even if it's open to debate whether it has any basis in fact, I find it credible.. But the other characters in the film don't count for much. We're told at the end that the sisters were later estranged, and that the maid went off to Montana. Lizzie, for her part, stayed in Fall River, and lived into her sixties. This is a slow-moving yet watchable film, but I suspect Sevigny is right. It had the potential to be better. 

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