This post contains spoilers for the Lifetime TV movie, Lizzie Borden Took An Axe. It also contains some non-explicit discussion of the Borden murders. Proceed accordingly.
Sometimes I tell people what my parents let me watch when I was a wee one, and people look at me strangely. I don’t know if it’s because this new information makes some unconscious aspect of my personality make sense, or if they can’t understand how I’m not stranger because of what I grew up watching. But my parents never really saw a problem with letting me watch the nightly news, Unsolved Mysteries or Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes movies. (They did not give my older sibs permission to let me watch Heathers or Flatliners, but those also left an indelible impression.) Somewhere, in between watching 1-2-3 CONTACT and the NBC movie of the week, I also developed an affinity for melodrama. And, as I have mentioned before, I will watch nearly anything with Christina Ricci.*
When I learned, late last year, Ricci had starred in a Lifetime movie about Massachusett’s infamous lady, Lizzie Borden, I was sold. I wasn’t expecting Lawrence of Arabia, but I figured Lizzie Borden Took an Axe would be good for a couple hours entertainment. I really ought to have to have remembered what network was broadcasting it.
I’m not going to get into the historical inaccuracies or the issues with characterization because there are people who will know more about this than I do, and I’d rather not flaunt my ignorance all over the place. While I’m not sure if the costumes were entirely historically accurate, I will say they were pretty without being ostentatious the way TV period pieces in the U.S. often are.
And while I can understand not everyone liking the choice to use contemporary music for the non-diegetic sound, I didn’t find it completely jarring. (On the other hand, I also loved Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, so maybe my taste can’t be trusted.)
What I do want to discuss is the missed opportunities in Lizzie Borden. The first article I read about this movie, back in October, included a quote from one of the producers about how the Lizzie Borden trial was the Dr. Sheppard or O.J. Simpson trial of its day. At its heart, this is a story that would still capture national attention today: A young woman is accused of brutally murdering her father and step-mother, vehemently denies it, and then all her family’s dirty laundry is aired at trial.
The start of the movie’s first act shows several potential suspects: People to whom Lizzie’s father, Andrew, owed money, and were unhappy with not being paid. The Borden family’s maid. A passing vagrant.** In keeping with the historical record, however, Lizzie is the only person arrested and tried for her father and step-mother’s murders.
In the course of the pre-trial inquest, it’s shown that Lizzie’s doctor gave her morphine to help her handle the stress of the daily questioning. Subsequently, Lizzie is shown changing her story, in the context of being stressed and confused because of her medicated state. And during both the inquest and trial, Lizzie occasionally appears either incredibly shallow or simple, commenting that the photo used by the local paper isn’t flattering.
However, aside from the producer’s decision to make Lizzie the murderer and have her confess as much to her older sister after the trial, at no point does the movie try to comment on the nature of celebrity trials or the importance of living in a post-Miranda Rights justice system.*** Furthermore, there’s no reflection on how the U.S. justice system treats women accused of violent crimes versus men; how or whether that treatment has changed over time; or even whether the Borden’s socioeconomic standing may have affected the jury’s perception of Lizzie’s guilt.
I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but the movie seemed white-washed, especially given that the entire series of events took place in the 1890s. The lack of diversity in the supporting cast of townspeople was enough to take me out of the story for a moment, even when the musical choices didn’t. And while we’re on the subject of representation, I found the indecision on whether Lizzie was a lesbian or not irksome: I realize most of the choices on the part of the production team and the actors were likely based on anecdotal evidence, but it either should’ve been an actual (minor) plot point or it should’ve been avoided completely.
Finally, as far as the actors are concerned, I should mention Clea DuVall was excellent as elder Borden daughter, Emma. Her entire performance was understated, but the scene in which she locks her door against her sister after their parent’s deaths spoke volumes. Billy Campbell was overshadowed by his distracting facial hair in his role as the Borden family lawyer, but his performance was serviceable, if not as compelling as it might have been.
But I was disappointed in Ricci’s portrayal of Lizzie, as it felt like she had no internal life. Even at the close of the third act, when Lizzie is describing the murders in detail to Emma, the shots interspersed with Ricci splattered with gore and blank facedly swinging a hatchet, there is no indication of what Lizzie is thinking or feeling.
While portraying Lizzie as having wild mood swings might have given the character some spark, her scenes showed no identifiable shift. Instead, in one scene she’d be dour and unyielding, and in the next, unpredictable and childlike, without any rhyme to the change.
If you are trapped under your couch, unable to reach your remote to change the channel when Lizzie Borden comes on (and, inevitably, it will be replayed multiple times), watching it until rescue comes will not bore you to death. But if you are looking for a TV movie with a moral, in the grand tradition of the movies of the week that taught us college is a death trap or that we, too, might be single white female-d, you’re out of luck. Lizzie Borden Took an Axe might have been a great many things, but, in the end, it’s as unsatisfying as last weekend’s Flowers In the Attic ultimately was.
* If you would like to watch a more entertaining movie with Christina Ricci, I would strongly suggest tracking down All’s Faire in Love. It’s ridiculous and awful, but it’s still more entertaining.
** The movie indicates there may or may not have been a strange man on the property; it’s unclear whether he is a part of Lizzie’s hallucinations. I don’t know if her testimony included a mention of a stranger, but it was an element of this movie.
***The passing mention by Lizzie’s lawyer that any of her testimony during the inquest is inadmissible as she wasn’t informed of her rights is silly and a clear attempt to dumb down the material for modern audiences, who would be more familiar with contemporary police procedurals where suspects are read their rights upon arrest. However, the U.S. Supreme Court did not rule on the necessity of this until 1966, in the case of Miranda v. Arizona, more than 70 years after the Borden murder trial.