They say you can’t libel the dead, but I feel a little sorry for Lizzie Borden anyhow. Acquitted of the gruesome 1892 murder of her father and stepmother at the family’s home in Fall River, Mass., she was instead convicted by playground jump-rope rhymes: We don’t, after all, say Lizzie Borden allegedly took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks. (And anyhow, sources say, it was only 19 whacks.)
Lifetime’s irresistibly whacky but largely disappointing Saturday-night movie treatment of the subject, “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax,” doesn’t do Borden’s case any favors. Christina Ricci, born to play borderline women with her beautiful bug-eyes, stars as the unhappy 32-year-old who is stuck living at home, like some permanently angry teenager.
Aside from some weirdness with her strict father and unsympathetic stepmother, it’s difficult to understand Lizzie’s motive for (allegedly!) killing them, at least in this telling. Mostly they just cramped her style, so she acted on both impulse and strategy, murdering her stepmother first and then waiting for her father to return home from work so she could kill him too.
The movie (written by Stephen Kay) is certainly not a procedural with any interest in building suspense, since there’s never any question that Lizzie’s the killer. We see her swing that ax and cover herself in blood spatter a dozen times or so, mostly because the film doesn’t seem to be able to settle on a structure or decide what tone it’s trying to convey. Ricci gives a merely serviceable performance here, almost as if she’s dividing her total paycheck by the number of sneers and whacks she has to give — and not giving one whack more than 41.
After an initial police inquest, Lizzie burns the dress she was wearing that day and thus implicates herself, launching a sensational trial — or what in 1892 passed for a sensational trial. I’m so dulled to violence on TV (and in life) that I was let down to discover that Borden was only charged with two murders. The playground rhyme would make you think she was a serial killer on a chopping spree; today she’d never stand a chance of making it on “Nancy Grace.”
In its look and feel, the film (directed by Nick Gomez) is another small step up for Lifetime, which just last weekend successfully lured some 6 million viewers with its buzzy adaptation of “Flowers in the Attic.” The colors in “Lizzie Borden” are filtered and aged to make the film look vaguely, historically gauzy in a creepy kind of way; there’s also a terribly out-of-place alt-blues soundtrack that gives you the feeling that Lizzie might at any moment saunter out and read you tonight’s featured selection of craft brews.
By the tedious second hour, whatever thrill could be had here is gone. You’ve seen the Bordens get whacked this way and that — in flashback form. Not enough time or effort is spent exploring the role that gender played in society’s fascination with the Borden trial; nor do we learn much about how and why the jury issued a not-guilty verdict. Rather than interest you in Lizzie Borden’s chapter in the history of American criminal justice, the movie makes it all seem hollow and unworthy of persisting in cultural memory for as long as it has.
(two hours) airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.