Craig William Macneill’s debut feature Lizzie is a quiet and tightly controlled piece. It explores the true crime story of Lizzie Borden (Chloe Sevigny) from a fresh, feminist point of view. However, as polished as Lizzie is as a movie, particularly in its performances, overall it never truly sticks – but not because of the modernist take that the film has decided upon.
In this depiction of the story, Borden enters a passionate tryst with her Irish maid Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) before then embarking on the alleged murder of her father and stepmother. It is a compelling idea to place on such a piece, setting a parallel to Patty Jenkins’ Monster. Both movies involve difficult, yet sympathetic women, who are confined and restricted by patriarchal systems. For both leads, the only way they feel that they can be heard is through murder. However, Lizzie doesn’t have the emotional edge which Patty Jenkins’ direction provides or Charlize Theron’s blazing performance. This is a colder, more impenetrable beast which keeps its viewer at a distance even when its principal characters obtain an intimate closeness.
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Despite this, there is confident control of proceedings by Macneill as he displays Lizzie Borden with small moments of defiance which may or may not feel at odds which the woman that people have read about, dependant on how much they know. Sevigny is seamless in giving Lizzie both the vulnerability needed to empathise with the character and the brooding rebellion that leads believably to the murders themselves. Kristen Stewart has a rather straight role as Sullivan and her ability to seem somewhat “vacant” can easily suggest that what’s being delivered is a flat performance. However, Stewart’s blankness allows Sevigny to provide an element of projection, which becomes far more compelling later in the film.
While Lizzie never feels like an exploitative turn, plundering a dark chapter of American lore, its near glacial pace does not allow the fleeting and ultimately painful romance to find its feet. Meanwhile, the film never lands the defiant power found in the likes of Belle, nor the bizarre, rousing absurdity found in The Favourite. Again, Lizzie is still interesting and relevant enough to contextualise with Jenkins’ magnificent debut feature, but unlike Monster, Lizzie never holds the same uncomfortable power to truly get under the skin, in spite of its well-handled elements.