In 1892, a young American woman named Lizzie Borden was tried and acquitted for the axe murders of her mother and father after a controversial trial. Even if you didn’t know about the acquittal you’ve most probably heard the name or the rhyme:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother 40 whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father 41
In all seriousness, the blows actually only number 19 and 11, showing how the story of a young woman murderer in a small town can cause quite the uproar. Add the lesbian undertones found in Borden’s relationship with actress Nance O’Niell, and Borden becomes understandable as a late 19th century figure of controversy. This is the part of the story Nick Gomez’s TV movie Lizzie Borden Took an Axe focuses on, telling the story in a fairly historically accurate way and making room for sibling dispute and a bit of zeitgeist whilst briefly alluding to the Borden story’s potential gay aspect.
Here, Lizzie is reimagined as a burgeoning bad girl, at least the closest thing 1892 would allow; getting moody with her father, stealing from her mother, shoplifting, axe murdering. Christina Ricci is pretty good as Lizzie, but the film’s attempts to muddy the waters of Borden’s story are upset by her continuous relapses into acting guilty as sin. If the film wants to depict a turn of the century trial with reasonable doubt, it lets Borden away with looking too cool for school and that pops the bubble. It both wants her to be calculating whilst introducing significant doubt and that ends up a bit too aimless.
Another thing that oddly works for and against the feature is its contemporary soundtrack of blues rock. The first few times you hear it, it might have the Marie Antoinette effect, updating a certain sensibilities to reveal the roots of contemporary interests. After a while, the idea becomes laboured: Borden is the blue print in our lust for scandal and outrage, rock music follows her down the streets, up the stairs, everywhere and anywhen. A good old fashioned house party shot like a discarded scene from Skins, covered by garage blues, kind of works, whereas the blaring rock chords that momentarily follow Andrew Borden (the fantastic Stephen Mchattie) on a wander down the street, reveal a film uncomfortable with silence or contemplation. This film had great potential to examine a hundred facets of a 19th century woman’s trial along with our frankly unsettling desire for controversial figures, but it seems wasted on an overtly bland retelling of a well-known story.
Lizzie Borden continued to live in her small town for 34 years after the acquittal until her death, it would have been interesting to examine that part of her life and how she lived since we know little of it. Still Lizzie Borden Took an Axe is a fine wee examination of the Borden case, lacking in zest or flare, but fairly passable as a rounded version of the story.
Dir. Nick Gomez
Stars. Christina Ricci, Clea DuVall, Gregg Henry, Stephen McHattie, Shawn Doyle, Hannah Emily Anderson