Sundance 2018: Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie

On Film / The Daily — Jan 21, 2018

“After innumerable plays, books, films, made-for-TV series and specials, and even an opera and a musical, you would think popular culture would have exhausted all the options for telling the story of Lizzie Borden, the New England woman who was tried and acquitted for the ax murders of her father and stepmother in 1892,” begins Leslie Felperin in the Hollywood Reporter. “But such is the fascination with Borden and the enigmatic story around her, a gory tale chock-full of intriguing timeline gaps and baffling stray details, that artists keep finding ways to reinterpret it to suit different times and tastes. The elegantly lurid but compelling Lizzie, written by Bryce Kass, directed by Craig William Macneill (The Boy) and produced by Chloë Sevigny in her best form in the title role, carves out of the raw material a suitably 2018 version, befitting of the #MeToo generation.”

“Six months before Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) and his wife Abby (Fiona Shaw) faced that fatal ax—and despite the famous rhyme, each received far fewer than forty blows—housemaid Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) reports for duty,” explains TheWrap’s Alonso Duralde. “While most of the household refers to her as ‘Maggie’ (the generic name given to all Irish servants, much as all Pullman porters once answered to ‘George’), Lizzie (Sevigny) immediately calls her by her given name. Right away, there’s an electricity between them . . . Between the camerawork and the subtle performances, Lizzie could very easily have been a silent film while still telling its story as effectively. But [screenwriter Bryce Kass’s] dialogue is terrific, from Lizzie and Bridget’s tentative (then passionate) courtship to the sick burn Lizzie delivers to Andrew when he calls her ‘an abomination’ for her affair with the maid.”

“Sevigny has been ripe for a juicy role like this for some time,” writes Jordan Hoffman in the Guardian.

“Just as Sevigny is full of steely gazes and brittle quips, Stewart is beautifully anguished, her kohl-eyed face revealing years of sorrow,” finds Anthony Kaufman in Screen. “But together, their relationship never reaches the kind of authenticity or deeper intimacy that would give the film an emotional anchor. Rather, like a horror film Lizzie provides its thrills through shock value. When the murders are finally shown, it’s a lurid, gruesome, and bloody freak-show, like De Palma’s Carrie by way of Sophia Coppola’s recent similarly-set period film The Beguiled.

“Lizzie is too often a case study in unearned pregnant pauses and longing stares,” finds Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com. “It never feels lived-in.”

“Noah Greenberg’s cinematography is stunning,” declares Variety’s Peter Debruge. “He frames his actresses with the house, shooting them in shallow focus behind windows and railings to make them look like prisoners.”

Filmmaker interviews Greenberg and gets Macneill talking about the house they filmed in. For IndieWire, Kate Erbland reports on the Q&A, and Lizzie is one of the films Nicolas Rapold and Eric Hynes discuss in today’s Film Comment Podcast (29’06”).

Updates, 1/22: For the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd, Lizzie poses the question, “What if Heavenly Creatures was kind of boring?” The screenplay posits Lizzie “as a kind of proto-feminist heroine” and “concocts a slash-fiction romance.” “Both angles might work if the film gave either actor room to make characters out of their characters, instead of paralyzing them through art-movie torpor.”

Macneill is “gifted at taking effective yet familiar cinematic tropes such as jump scares and slow, deliberate camera pans and reworking them into an unnerving rhythm and tone he’s firmly established as distinctly his own,” writes Stephen Saito, “and with editor Abbi Jutkowicz, every scene seems to squeeze every ounce of tension that it can.”

Updates, 1/23:Lizzie reportedly began life as a projected four-hour HBO mini-series (initiated by Sevigny), but Macneill’s feature has barely enough incident to fill its 105 minutes,” writes David Edelstein at Vulture. “Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass pare down the talk, and Macneill puts a slight reverberance around the dialogue to suggest a house of bare floors, spare furnishings, and awkward communication. Everything is drained of color. Although Lizzie is often headstrong (Sevigny’s specialty is the insolent mouth and upraised chin), she’s also given to seizures at moments of passion, as if the universe itself is fighting her self-expression. Stewart’s Bridget, meanwhile, is an ostentatiously mousy thing whose eyes are so often fixed on the floorboards it’s a wonder she doesn’t collide with the furniture.”

Lizzie isn’t a bad film, but it doesn’t accomplish all that it wants to—and all I wanted it to,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. “We’re never as immersed in its psychological swirl as we should be, and every character in it is either such a creep or a flinching headcase that it’s hard to get our emotional hooks in any of them.”

“An impressive supporting cast, including Kim Dickens, Denis O’Hare, Fiona Shaw (of De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, 2006) and the selective Jamey Sheridan (The Ice Storm, 1997) churns Lizzie into a mounting orchestra of dread,” finds Ioncinema’s Nicholas Bell. “But once Macneill allows this dark flower to completely unfurl into its horrifically imagined reenactment, Lizzie becomes a sobering, complex indictment—making it perhaps too difficult for many to engage with its clashing allegiances.”

Deadline’s Anita Busch reports that Macneill will next “direct the adaptation of the psychological thriller She’s Never Coming Back. The project is being adapted by Macneill from the best-selling Swedish novel by Hans Koppel.”

Updates, 1/25: “By the time we get to the gruesome staging of the actual murders, Lizzie feels like the material of a grim little genre picture covered in so many layers of commentary on class and gender that the whole enterprise winds up feeling more oppressive than liberating,” finds Scott Renshaw in the Salt Lake City Weekly.

“The scene itself—‘the incident,’ to borrow from I, Tonya—is a stunner, thanks to the vulnerability of the performers and a certain amount of shock value,” writes Russ Fischer at the Playlist. “The aftermath of the killings, however, is a slow, sludgy comedown that undermines the emotional punch of the violence, and the implications of it.”

But in the new Film Comment Podcast (51’23”), Amy Taubin comes to Lizzie’s defense.

For the Huffington Post, Matthew Jacobs talks with Sevigny, who was “hoping for Black Swan meets Capote. But on set and in the editing process, Macneill apparently trimmed and expunged scenes, including some of Sevigny’s punchier moments . . . ‘It was very hard,’ Sevigny said about learning those moments weren’t included in the film. ‘I was like, “If you have another scene with Kristen Stewart and you don’t put it in your movie, you’re stupid. What’s your problem?” But almost every movie goes through that. Almost everything that was on the page was filmed, and a lot of it didn’t make it in the movie. And more stuff with me and Fiona Shaw. There was more to the relationships that made them more complicated, and also then informed why Lizzie [commits the murders]. Now it’s a little more vague than what Bryce and I intended originally to do.’”

Updates, 1/26: Sevigny “plays the title character with rage that eventually seeps through her prison of a home like a poisonous gas,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “Ms. Sevigny comfortably shares the screen with Kristen Stewart, who, in the role of a sympathetic maid, continues to solidify her standing as one of the great screen performers of her generation.”

Writing for W, Miriam Bale finds that “the drama is fumbled, and the filmmaking is far too contemporary, even trendy, in the way it follows Sevigny’s Borden from behind like far too many forgettable suspense films. But the candle-lit Lizzie is gorgeous and still worth seeing. And it's a clear case of actress as the true auteur of a movie.”

“Saban Films has nabbed North American rights,” reports Variety’s Brent Lang.

Update, 1/27: “Sevigny turns in a monster performance,” writes Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey. “Macneill deploys the tools of Gothic horror (particularly the assaultive score’s stings and trills) to create the proper mood, and prepare us for the bloodshed at the film’s (but not the story’s) conclusion.”

Update, 1/30: “As the edit progressed I felt the always present undercurrent of empowerment coming to the fore,” editor Abbi Jutkowitz tells Filmmaker.

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