‘Lizzie’ features some killer performances

Kristen Stewart (left) and Chloe Sevigny star in the film “Lizzie” Contributed by Eliza Morse/Saban Films and Roadside Attractions
Caption
Kristen Stewart (left) and Chloe Sevigny star in the film “Lizzie” Contributed by Eliza Morse/Saban Films and Roadside Attractions

The story of how Lizzie Borden was accused in 1892 of taking an ax and killing her father and stepmother has been fodder for films, TV shows, a rock musical and a child’s jump rope game. Although Borden was acquitted of the murders, the general thinking is that she got away with murder.

So much notoriety created a challenge for screenwriter Bryce Kass and director Craig William Macneill (“The Boy”) as they took another run at the famous murder case in “Lizzie.”

The simple approach of showing Lizzie’s unhappy home life, the brutality of the murders and the court case would not do. Most of those elements are in this latest tale of murder and mayhem (with a lot less emphasis on the court proceedings) but the focus is more on the systematic development of relationships – both good and bad – that served a purpose in Borden’s life.

Central to what is either emotional manipulation or the first outward expression of love for Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) that comes through her interaction with Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), the Irish servant who moves into the Borden home. Bridget and Lizzie bond almost immediately as the house servant is quickly subjected to a brutality that Lizzie either has known firsthand or seen in some variation.

This is another strong performance by Sevigny, who has made a career out of playing damaged characters. In the case of Lizzie, she shows just enough mental and emotional strength to make Lizzie a dominant player in the house but never to the point of ignoring what probably happened because Lizzie is so vulnerable.

Sevigny is always a force on the screen and it takes a strong co-star to keep up with her. Stewart provides the balance with a strength that is far different from Sevigny’s. Much of Stewart’s performance had to be played with more subtlety and finesse because of her status in the household. Much of her performance comes through her eyes and body language that at first glance looks passive but on closer examination shows great will and determination.

Had either performance wavered, “Lizzie” would have been little more than another period piece murder mystery where the outcome has been well-documented. That never happens because Sevigny and Stewart are always the primary powers in a scene even if the writing and direction stumble a bit.

Kass has created a story in three acts where the first two acts have some slow spots and the final act wraps up so quickly, it was as if the production was about to run out of money. He also takes a very linear approach with the murder portion instead of at least developing some of the casually mentioned alternate versions a little more.

Even with a few blips, “Lizzie” is a film that while based on an oft told tale comes across with enough originality to make it interesting. Add to that solid performances by Sevigny and Stewart and “Lizzie” shows that even a project based on the familiar can be a cut above the rest.

MOVIE REVIEW

“Lizzie”

Grade: B

Starring Chloe Sevigny, Kristen Stewart and Kim Dickens. Directed by Craig William Macneill.

Rated R for violence, nudity, language, sexuality. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 46 minutes.

Bottom line: An oft-told story with enough originality to make it interesting