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Lizzie Borden Took an Axe…

You know the poem:

Lizzie Borden took an axe

and gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

she gave her father forty-one.”

The story of history’s most famous (alleged) axe murderer has been turned into a movie, Lizzie, starring Chloe Sevigny, that just opened, and it attempts to show exactly how Lizzie pulled off the ax murders of her wealthy father and step mother on August 4, 1892.

The astonishment at the horror of the slayings was matched by that at Lizzie’ surprise acquittal by an all-male jury after just 90 minutes of deliberation.

There was no evidence against Lizzie, the jurors said. Or was there?

Ms. Sevigny is a fervent student of the Borden case and also is the producer of the film. In Lizzie, her answer to Law and Order, we find Lizzie an aggrieved young woman who in her home in Fall River, Massachusetts, never gets her way. Older sister Emma is the favorite, not Lizzie. Lizzie is ignored by her step mother and insulted and ordered around by her wealthy, arrogant dad, whom, it is rumored in the film, made his money by stealing from the poor and the working class. Lizzie wants out of the house and wants to put Mom and Dad out of their misery. Of course, like all good killers, she does not want to get caught.

Enter Bridgette, the newly arrived, very attractive maid. Is there a way, Lizzie schemes, to get Bridgette to help in the murders?

The movie, directed by Craig Macneill, literally flies off the handle right there. It begins on the morning of the murders and then goes back in time to set up the murder plot. Screenwriter Bryce Kass weaves all of his plots and subplots into the film and tries to hold it together for a surprise ending.

It does not work, though, not at all. The film has numerous problems.

First, the movie’s pace makes turtles look like Kentucky Derby winning racehorses. You sit in the vast darkness of the theater and pray “please, please, let something happen in this film.”

Second, Ms. Sevigny, a fine actress, spends most of the movie moping around the house, feeling sorry for herself and doing 4,000 aggrieved facial closeups for the camera. The plot inches forward and yet, through all of it, there is never a motive made for the grisly murders. If Lizzie was so upset with her parents and her life, why didn’t she just leave Fall River? Why butcher them (at either 40 or 41 whacks, it was pure butchery).

Third, historically, the evidence for a deep relationship between Lizzie and the maid that leads to a double murder is very, very thin, if non-existent.

Fourth, there is next to nothing in the film about the police investigation, court room drama or enormous press coverage of the trial. The 1892 trial was one of the most publicized in history, but you would never know it from the movie.

There is a 15 or so minute segment of the second half of the film that is really intriguing when the audience is shown how the filmmaker thinks Lizzie carried out the crimes, but that is just a little piece in the overall movie.

The director does get good performances from Sevigny as Lizzie, Kristen Stewart as the maid, Jamey Sheridan as Andrew Bordon, Fiona Shaw as his wife Abby and Kim Dickens as Emma. The failure of the movie is not their fault, but screenwriter Bryce Kass’. There are barrels full of books on the murder and yet it does not appear that Kass went through any of them.

The writer was blind to history, too. You learn little of the Bordens, the Borden wealth or their neighborhood in Fall River. What was Fall River like in 1892? It was one of America’s most interesting cities. After the Civil War, Fall River became one of the great cotton textile mill centers of the country and did twenty per cent of all the cotton work in New England. Thousands of men and women, and many Irish maids, like Bridgette in the movie, moved there seeking work. Many of them were housed in large, unattractive wooden tenement apartments and led dreary lives. The textile city boomed until the 1920s. All of that history, not even a single line about it, is missing from the movie.

There are huge gaps in the movie, too. Where was sister Emma when the murders happened? What about all the other theories over the years? Did intruders kill the Bordens? An irate former worker? A former lover of Lizzie’s? Did Lizzie do it in an epileptic seizure? Why didn’t human blood turn up beneath the animal blood on the axe? Why were fingerprints not taken (1892 was one of the first years they were used in criminal cases). Why was there no study of the bloodied dress that Lizzie reportedly burned?

Lizzie is very thin on plot and story and overdone on dark rooms and pondering close ups. This movie needs a lot more than forty whacks.

* * * * *

The awful crime has never lost its bizarre luster. There have been numerous books on the Borden case and now there is even a television series, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. The Borden home today is a small hotel that offers tours of the murder scenes and even a recreation of the slayings on the August 4 anniversary. The Borden home has an online “gift shop” where you can buy models of the murder house, , tee shirts, caps, dresses, axes and even Lizzie bobble head dolls. Watching the bobble head doll bounce around should be more exciting than this movie.