Borden axe murders a polite 'whydunnit'

Chloe Sevigny plays the titular character in Lizzie.
Chloe Sevigny plays the titular character in Lizzie.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

REVIEW / BIOGRAPHY DRAMA

LIZZIE (R21)

106 minutes/Now showing/ 2.5 stars

The story: Lizzie Borden (Chloe Sevigny) is in her 30s, living with her wealthy parents in 19th-century, small-town New England. She is headstrong and likes going out unaccompanied, a habit which infuriates her tyrannical father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan). Into their household comes Bridget (Kristen Stewart), a new housekeeper. This is a story based on the Borden axe murders of 1892.

For the grisliness of the crime and the polite, upper-class surroundings in which it occurred, the Borden murders have become the stuff of legend, as much a part of the historical fabric of New England as the Salem witch trials.

As with the witch trials, the Borden murders are pounced upon by a new generation of writers and film-makers, eager to offer fresh insight.

This particular take, from the relatively new film-making team of director Craig William Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass, weaves a story from threads that have been around for some years.

Without giving away too much, these threads start with the well-founded theory that it was Lizzie who wielded the weapon, before heading off into wilder territory.

These include the idea that housekeeper Bridget (Stewart) and Lizzie (Sevigny) had an unusually close relationship. Also thrown into the pot are allegations of sexual abuse and financial shenanigans around the character of Lizzie's uncle, John Morse (Denis O'Hare).

All this was happening in a tidy home that, to outsiders, looked like the very picture of respectability.

This is a "whydunnit", not a whodunnit, with the film building a case for Lizzie that makes her plight understandable, without excusing her entirely.

The chilliness of her family relationships, for example, is contrasted with the tenderness she shares with her pets and with Bridget. Her hands are bloody not from revenge, but from a desperate need to protect her humanity, if not her sanity. If there is madness at work, it is a madness of a soul trampled upon for too long, rather than anything clinical.

This is a work designed for Sevigny and Stewart to show their acting range. On display is a palette of 19th-century repressed moods - repressed lust, repressed rage, repressed sadness - that each fully masters, which even the cathartic scene of mayhem cannot fully unbottle.

The team has come up with a psychologically realistic but polite work that, like the corsets around Lizzie's torso, feels too buttoned-down and joyless for its own good.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2018, with the headline 'Borden axe murders a polite 'whydunnit''. Print Edition | Subscribe