Sundance Review: ‘Lizzie’ Crackles with Tension

Sundance Film Festival: Lizzie Borden returns to the silver screen in the gripping drama, “Lizzie.”

In 1892, Lizzie Borden stood trial for the murders of her father and step-mother in Fall River, Massachusetts. No one knows for sure why Andrew and Abigail Borden were murdered in their home one August morning. Many theories have surfaced over the years, ranging from Lizzie’s supposed insanity to some sort of financial dispute.

This new film bucks the traditional horror route in telling the story of the ill-fated Bordens. Instead, “Lizzie” is, at its core, a drama of a family under siege. Chloë Sevigny stars as 32-year-old maid, Lizzie. Her father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), tries to control his daughter, although she frequently finds ways to subvert him. Her sister Emma (Kim Dickens) is much more willing to appease his overbearing tendencies. Lizzie strikes up a friendship with their new maid, Bridget Sullivan—known to the family by the generic Irish name Maggie—(Kristen Stewart). Their friendship eventually blossoms into more. Abby Borden (Fiona Shaw) is a step-mother who never speaks against her husband, even when it seems she doesn’t agree with him.

While the film is more a drama than anything else, director Craig William Macneill weaves in gripping tension and sensuality. Upon first meeting, Lizzie adjusts a pin in Bridget’s hair, and already the connection between the two crackles in the air like electricity. When Lizzie and Emma’s maternal uncle John arrives at the family home, you can sense something is off long before anyone ever suggests it. There is so much unspoken throughout the film, and because it doesn’t need to be said. Entire conversations can be communicated with a simple glance, a peek through a window, hands tying an apron.

Perhaps what heightens the tension is the fact that it maintains Victorian-era chastity throughout most of the film. Macneill doesn’t need to show what happens when Andrew makes late-night visits to Bridget’s room. Scenes between Lizzie and Bridget are captivating in their intensity, conveying heat and longing through brushing a hand, or passing a note.

Chloë Sevigny shines in this leading performance. She commands attention in every scene, giving Lizzie Borden depth and strength. She does this while also giving the audience reasons to sympathize with her.

Kristen Stewart is also very good as Bridget. Her quiet, mournful expressions are well-suited to an Irish immigrant, alone in a new country, far from her family.

The film is full of great performances. Jamey Sheridan and Fiona Shaw are great as the doomed parents. Denis O’Hare is exceptionally creepy as Uncle John. Kim Dickens plays nice as much more submissive sister Emma.

Bryce Kass extensively researched the many theories and legends of the Borden murders. While the idea of a relationship between Lizzie and Bridget isn’t new (it was first introduced in a novel by Ed McBain), Kass gives the youngest Borden depth. Where others focus on her “spells” as signs of deep and deadly mental illness, Kass writes a woman who challenges the world around her. She questions convention and stands up to the men that want to believe they serve her best interests.

This is a film that takes its time. It isn’t in a hurry, but doesn’t dawdle either. The cinematography, the sparse score, the costume design, everything comes together to craft the confined and isolated life of a wealthy family under the control of an overbearing patriarch.

“Lizzie” is looking for distribution, but will hopefully be in theaters later this year.

GRADE: (★★★1/2)