Hard to believe it’s been almost 40 years since Elizabeth Montgomery took a juicy whack at the role of Lizzie Borden, and in casting Lifetime’s billboard-friendly update “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax,” Christina Ricci initially looks like an inspired choice. What emerges, though, is a curiously lethargic movie — more courtroom drama than anything else — before a finishing kick that’s the only reason worth tuning in. Oddly constructed, Lifetime’s latest attempt to produce TV movies with more edge isn’t exactly razor-sharp, but strictly based on its camp factor, “Lizzie” should get the job done.
As anyone who remembers the nursery rhyme knows, Ms. Borden, living in Fall River, Mass., in 1892, was alleged to have taken an ax and murdered her father and mother (OK, stepmother) with a whole lot of whacks. (Forty in the rhyme, but roughly a dozen does the trick here.)
Did she do it? And what exactly could have been the motive? That’s the gist of a movie that positions Ricci as a vaguely seductive spinster (with an old-maid sister, played by Clea DuVall); someone who appears to harbor incestuous feelings for her dad (Stephen McHattie); and a woman who defiantly says she’s only a prim Sunday-school teacher on Sundays.
Yet after Lizzie’s grisly discovery of the bodies, gears shift into trial mode, with a former associate of her dad’s (Billy Campbell) defending her, and an aggressive prosecutor (Gregg Henry) doing all he can to discredit her in what amounted to a tabloid-style trial of the (19th) century.
All of this is not only conventionally done, but provides virtually no insight into its title character. That’s because the entire movie is essentially just an extended preamble to a sequence showing how the killings happened — or at least, might have happened. Until that point in the story, “Lizzie Borden” feels like a slog, while incorporating unorthodox touches that prove wholly arbitrary, such as a contemporary soundtrack.
Directed by Nick Gomez from a script by Stephen Kay and David Coggeshall, one suspects “Lizzie Borden” is one of those projects — much like the recent ratings grabber “Flowers in the Attic” — where the title, casting and marketing did most of the work, with the details viewed as something of an afterthought, and the assembled talent mostly wasting its time.
Nevertheless, seeing that still image of Ricci standing on a staircase, holding the bloody ax and sporting a mysterious stare (so that’s what Wednesday Addams grew up into), it’s rather difficult to argue the point, even if it’s wielded with about as much subtlety.