The year is 1892, and in Massachusetts there lives the Borden family, father, stepmother and two grown daughters, who include Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny), who is not often rebellious, but feels the repression of her father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) rather too often for her liking. He tends to order her life and that of sister Emma (Kim Dickens), all too aware of the suffering in a small community that two spinsters can endure, yet ironically controlling them both so that there is very little chance of them flying the nest. Even when Lizzie goes out on her own to the theatre one evening, it all goes horribly wrong, for she is humiliated thanks to a fit she takes in the auditorium...
But that is not what Lizzie Borden is famous for, and if you do know what she is famous for, you would be well ahead of the story in this historical piece. It had been the dream project of Sevigny for over a decade to make this, and originally it was to be shot for television, but HBO took so long to get around to it that they were beaten to the punch by a miniseries starring Christina Ricci. For a while it appeared as though she would never fulfil that wish, but after indie horror The Boy was a modest success, its director Craig William Macneill hopped aboard and finally brought the production to fruition. However, Sevigny was still not happy, despite getting to play Borden at last.
It did not matter so much that she was a decade older than the real Borden when the crimes were committed - Sevigny didn't resemble her too closely anyway - but what she had envisaged was a psychological thriller based in fact and theory about the murders Lizzie was tried for, and to link that in with the feminist reading of the case and how women who commit violence are not the same as men who commit violence, that sort of thing. What she got was a severely muted item of drama that only came alive, ironically, when the death was being doled out, unless you counted the sex scene between the star and her co-star, Kristen Stewart, who played maid Bridget Sullivan.
Now, since Borden was acquitted at her trial, there have been all sorts of musings published on what really happened that fateful day, and most of them involve Lizzie not being innocent at all, so you can imagine what she might have thought about that if she really had not been a murderer. We will never know, as certainly she was not the sole suspect, simply the most likely one, though if she genuinely was not the killer, such speculation as seen here was not as progressive as their theorists may have wanted to believe. Crime writer Ed McBain had concocted the "Lizzie was a lesbian" idea back in the eighties, and it had stuck to her legacy, such as it was, ever since, with some feminist views liking the idea since it looked as though she was sticking it to the patriarchy - indeed, that was Sevigny's take on it.
What appeared to have been the impetus for this work getting the go-ahead at last was the popularity of the Margaret Atwood television adaptation The Handmaid's Tale, which depicted a nightmare future world where women are second class citizens and routinely abused by the heartless men in charge. Here we saw a similar society, with Sheridan effectively hateful as the head of the family, and Denis O'Hare as uncle John Morse, in reality the other main suspect after Lizzie, who here is a horrendous misogynist but not capable of murder. This leads the two lead women to seek solace in each other's arms, and eventually take all their clothes off to turn to crime to extricate themselves from an impossible situation, yet there was very little nuance in spite of the reserved tone, which had it embraced the lurid would have been cartoonish, yet a darn sight more engrossing. It was a pity, Sevigny and Stewart were very strong but they were in the wrong film, something more passionate. Historically, it was dubious, by no means exclusive to this, but it seems staging the legendary nude murders enthused Macneill more than the politics. Music by Jeff Russo.