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Lifetime’s Lizzie Borden Took an Axe- Yes, a Crime was Committed

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So,  Bordenphiles everywhere are probably burning up their keyboards tonight writing reviews of the much-hyped Lifetime movie, Lizzie Borden Took an Axe. Before the verdict is in, why indeed was this production rushed to the screen? Clearly with a gross lack of fact checking on the case, the culture and mannerisms of the times, set dressing and costume, this was a low-budget rush job to get something in the can to beat out the anticipated Playtone-Tom Hanks production starring Chloe Sevigny.  Ms. Sevigny, a visitor to Fall River and a case enthusiast would have done the role justice.

The never-ending inaccuracies, too numerous to mention in full, indicate a total laziness on the part of the scriptwriters to even consult Google for the most basic of facts on the case.  In fact, other than the undeniable truth that two people were murdered in Fall River, most probably with a hatchet, there is not much else this version of the story got right.

Filmed in Halifax, presumably for the vintage atmosphere and possibly budget constraints, the film begins with a house which looks nothing like the Borden house, a city which looks nothing like a city and most certainly nothing like Fall River.  There is no flavor of the mills, Main Street, the Hill section or the river. At least they did not attempt the distinctive Fall River accent.

Even those not in the know about speech patterns, costume, mannerisms and culture of 1892 will instantly sense something is quite wrong on all these counts.  For example, a woman would never have appeared on the street without a hat, and most assuredly not at an inquest.  When making a period piece, attention to the smallest detail is essential lest the entire screen illusion of the event be destroyed. And speaking of destroyed- what did you think of Lizzie’s playlist?

• The Black Keys, “Psychotic Girl”

• Ian Clement, “The Hammer & the Nail”

• Sons of Jezebel, “Whoo Boy”

• Kreeps, “Pennsylvania Boarded House Blues”

• Paul Otten, “Dangerous Mind” *

• The Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer, “Are You Listening Lord,” “Shake It”

• Pow Wow, “All In” *

• Lady of the Sunshine, “White Rose Parade”

• Cavendish Music Library, “Razzamatazz Man”

It is always a great risk to incorporate contemporary music in a period piece.  The end result may be campy or it may turn out to be another Marie Antoinette film disaster of recent years.  In this case, the spectacle of Christina Ricci striding out defiantly to a forbidden party in what might be construed as a “Soiled Dove”, cleavage-baring bodice to the strains of “Whoo Boy” is laughable.  At the party Lizzie meets Nance O’Neil who makes her entrance into Lizzie’s life at least 12 years too early. Understandably, in a two hour film, many factual sequences must be collapsed or even omitted in the interest of time. What is unforgiveable is that in this production, they managed to find precious minutes for total fabrications which never occurred, or did not serve the history timeline in the least, while leaving out vital information and actions and incidents crucial to the case. It’s almost as if the script writer had a large handful of facts about the case scribbled on post-it notes, threw them all up in the air, and whatever order they landed in was the order in which they appear, sometimes tarted up or altered at will and with zero relationship to the actual timeline of the true events.

As in the Elizabeth Montgomery 1975 film, (a vastly superior effort), Lizzie’s Uncle John Morse was left out as well as Mrs. Churchill, the very important star attorney and former Massachusetts Governor Robinson, Mr. Moody for the Prosecution, and others.  Andrew Jennings was the sole embodiment of Lizzie’s defense.  With the actual Borden trial transcript available, the screen writer for this sad attempt himself should have been hanged for Laziness in the First Degree.  Kudos for getting the famous line uttered by Lizzie in response to whether she and her mother were cordial, “It all depends on your idea of cordiality”.

Also disappointing was the performance of Christina Ricci, a talented young actress who turned in a one-note song as Lizzie.  The real Lizzie Borden was a multi-faceted and subtle person; refined, dignified, meticulous, affectionate to friends and also stubborn, having feelings of inferiority, and a full spectrum of traits as most human beings possess.  Ricci has made her name as a quirky, Goth-Girl, dark performer and is good at it.  She is better than the lines given her in this production.  Ricci’s distracted, crazy poses, bulging eyes, and defiant little outbursts did not make for much depth-of character.

So many disappointments for even the most casual Lizziephile:  Lizzie standing over a cauldron stirring up that infamous dress, outside, while Emma shrieked and Alice Russell peered out a second storey window, City Marshal Hilliard played as a fool, Andrew Borden with dark hair and a mustache, Lizzie racing around in her underwear with hair streaming wantonly down her back, the missing scene where neighbor Addie Churchill spies the corpse of Abby Borden under the bed, Dr. Bowen popping out of his house like a jack-in-the-box when Bridget hammers on the door.  All so incorrect.  All so maddening.  When will anyone recognize that this story deserves to be told as it actually happened?  If Cameron could not get it right with his Titanic epic, as pretty as it was to look at- then there is little hope the real, and truly fascinating story of the Borden case will ever see the light of day.  Another golden opportunity missed.

Two thumbs way down.  Not released tonight, it escaped. Airing again on Sunday. Give it a miss.

13 Comments

  • Kate Lavender

    I saw this movie for the first time about a year ago when I was still studying the crime and I knew immediately that the screenwriter borrowed the Lizzie Borden name to pimp the movie and fabricate the story. But what was even more maddening was when “The Chronicles” came out and it was even worse. I still have millennials ask me about the dead baby in the basement.?!? This is what happens when people that do not truly love the story in its original form try to make a movie just to cash a check. Shame on them.

  • amaykate2015

    I have to admit that I loved the music.in my opinion having only period music 1-is a bit boring 2-lacks emotional relatabity with a modern audience and 3-almost insults its audience. Of course we know this is modern music added to a period piece. I do think it’s risky and a brave choice and in this case pulled off very well.
    I did NOT like how little Alice Russell was in the piece and NOT like Nances early entrance.
    I personally loved the performances given by Clea DuVall (who I will only be able to see as Emma for the rest of my life now) and Hannah Andersen as Bridget.

  • elaine

    Is the HBO Tom Hanks mini series still going forward? I haven’t seen anything more recent than 2011 articles about the project. Three years is a long time for a script to be sitting around…

    As for the Lifetime flick. Ick. It was so awful.

  • Taylor Miller

    The movie itself wasn’t bad. Historical movies aren’t always accurate, and a lot really are like this one: filled with tons of inaccuracies. I didn’t like the fact that Christina Ricci, while a wonderful actress, looked absolutely terrible. She is only like 33, and Lizzie was about that age I think when she killed her dad and step-mom, but Ricci looked much older than that because she’s deathly skinny (I think I read somewhere she obsesses over her body). And I didn’t like the music. The music ruined it for me. Like I said before, it wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t the best. And this is coming from a girl who doesn’t dislike very many movies.

  • Michael Shogi

    Shelley, assuming they continue with the other Lizzie film, I think you hit the nail right on the head when you say, “this was a low-budget rush job to get something in the can to beat out the anticipated Playtone-Tom Hanks production starring Chloe Sevigny.” I did not watch this film, nor do I plan to in the future. For that matter, I don’t plan to watch the Chloe Sevigny film either – which I am sure will be another “hatchet job”.

  • emma

    Well as usual the Lizzie experts are up in arms over the rather gross historical inaccuracies, but, my God, it was the lifetime network, how they managed to avoid Lizzie and her defense attorney, from falling in love and having a lavish dream wedding was surprising. Christina Ricci was okay, though miscast, Clea Duvall made a pretty good Emma. I wasn’t expecting much, so I admit I wasn’t horribly let down, So now it looks like the ball is in Chloe Sevigny’s court, if her Lizzie project is still in the works.

  • Barbara Morrissey

    An excellent review of a terrible movie. It was a sad depiction of a horrific historical event, where so much evidence and actual literature is available for the screen writers. The character portrayals were so far off the mark, it was difficult to watch. Your analogy of “throwing post-its in the air” is spot on !!! We will do a far better job, accurate in all areas, on Aug. 4Th.

  • John

    I totally agree with this review. From the beginning scenes I knew this movie was rushed to the screen. The house, costumes, and location were all wrong plus numerous inaccuracies. To me I think they were trying to bring a modern twist to the famous crime of 1892. When I saw pictures from the movie before the movie aired I knew then and there….this movie would not do justice to the case. Some things I noticed just in the pictures…. electric wires, modern street poles and lights, screens on the windows. When the movie aired I was hoping all the things I noticed would all not appear in the movie. I watched the movie with a very open mind however when I saw the movie last evening there they all were in the final version. The house looked nothing like the original house. To make a movie based on this case why I can not understand did the writers, set designers, costumes designers, etc not look on the internet to see pictures and more information on how life was back in the 1890’s. The women’s costumes were all wrong including the hairstyles. The men’s costumes seemed accurate what happened with the women’s is beyond me. From all the pictures I have seen of what women wore back then I do not recall seeing the women wearing an open collared blouse with a tie or ribbon around their necks. And in some scenes the women wore very low cut dresses. If they used wigs on the actresses that would have helped a bit. Not the straight styles they used in the movie. The house they used was a very beautiful house but not the kind of house the Borden’s lived in. They should have looked on the internet once again to see pictures and the design of the original house. We are very lucky to still have the original house that the Borden’s lived in. And even better to visit the house for a tour or stay overnight. Leanne and all involved in the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast have done an excellent and superb job in restoring the house. When you walk through the front door of 92’nd Street now you would think you were back in the 1890’s. Every detail is there. All the production team would have had to have done was once again do some research. What we know of how the crime was committed the lay out of the house played a major and very important part in the case. In this version of the movie all was lost. And the final scenes when Lizzie and Emma were leaving Maplecroft to see the word Maplecroft on one of the columns to the driveway was another mistake. It is written that the Lizzie had the word Maplecroft engraved into the top step of the front stairs to the house…. Which it is still there now to this day. All of the actors in this new version did the best they could with what they were presented to work with. I’m sorry for all my negative words but what we need is another movie made based on the actual transcripts from the case with attention to every smallest detail intact. Some great actors to play in a new version would be Kathy Bates as Abby Borden, Nicole Kidman as Lizzie Borden. The Elizabeth Montgomery version is in my opinion 100 percent better than the 2013 version. If you have never seen it please do yourself a favor and watch it. The only detail in this version that I noticed is the exterior of the house they used. But the interior scenes are correct as are the costumes, hairstyles and facts as we know them. Watch this new version with an open mind but please do yourself a favor and find a copy of The Legend Of Lizzie Borden from 1975, you will not be sorry.

    • Honeycomb

      John, I totally agree with all your points. When the movie opens, I at first thought it was going to be a version of the story in modern times. I thought that because it wasn’t apparent to me immediately that this was a PERIOD movie. The clothing wasn’t fully shown at the very beginning, the hairstyles, the manner of speech…it all looked 21st century to me. Then there was a scene with several women in the long dresses and aprons of the day, and I realized it was supposed to be a period movie, and I realized it would be a bad one. The one with Elizabeth Montgomery was excellent and from what I’ve read of the facts of the case, also spot on with the facts that it had time to cover. Montgomery also acted as described in texts I’ve read…she didn’t shout to Bridget, get overly excited, etc. Excellent movie that was nominated for about 5 Emmy awards.

  • Kathleen T.

    Shelley, you took the thoughts right out of my head. I posted my own review on my FB page before I read this, and many of my points agree with yours. I’m no film purist, as I totally understand that film adaptations have to, well, adapt because of the nature of film. But this movie was truly reprehensible. You’re right about Christina Ricci, too – she is a very talented actress but didn’t do this role justice at all. But I think that has to do with bad direction. As I say in my own review, I think the same problem goes for Clea Duvall, another good actress who came across with a sub-par performance. When this happens with two good actors in the same movie I place the blame squarely on the director.

  • Lyle Pontes

    I have lived in Fall River my whole life and like most people who live in this city I watched that movie tonight, and growing up in this city you lern the story Lizzie Borden very well; epically at a young age. All I’m going to say from what I’ve been reading in the “Grew Up In Fall River” group on Facebook is I hope the writers and director know that they have pissed off an entire city in the corse of two hours.

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