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No Feel for History

The other night, I wasted a couple of hours watching “Lizzie Borden Took an Axe” on Lifetime.

First off, it is a strange movie for Lifetime, in that the villain of the piece was female.  This just doesn’t happen.  I suppose, though, that they really wanted to dwell on the parts of the movie where Lizzie was getting batted around by the male-dominated justice system of the Nineteenth Century.  Still, wasn’t that bad for her, because – *spoilers!* – she was acquitted by said justice system.

But the real problem with the movie was its style.  During the murder scenes, which are pure conjecture in any case, we were given views of bright-red blood sluicing through the air in slow motion, with lots of sharp edits and other tricks out of MTV.  There were at least a couple of times where characters were walking down the street – again, in slow motion – to a dirty guitar grunge rock soundtrack.  Grunge rock?

The modern era is such that, should you want to make a TV movie about a horrible murder or two, there would be plenty of such events to choose from, without having to go back more than a decade or two.  To choose to retell the story of a famous murder from the 1890’s, with all the added expense of historical settings and costumes, one should really be dedicated to recreating that world for the viewer.  Instead, I found myself constantly taken out of the past, so that the director could display his music video chops for us all.  I thought it a stunning waste of good material.

Also, the movie – as always, billed as a “true story” – doesn’t play up much mystery; it seems married to the notion that Lizzie Borden was, in fact, the murderer.  She may well have been, but there are plenty of other theories out there as well and the woman was acquitted by a jury that would probably have found life easier if they convicted her.  Instead, they end with a scene where Lizzie whispers in her sister’s ear, while we are shown gruesome clips of how she might have done it, ending with the sister leaving in disgust and anger.  Then we are told that the sisters never saw each other again.  Well, there was, in fact, an argument between the sisters, after which they never spoke again, but it happened a dozen years after the trial.  During the years between, they lived together.

Christina Ricci was fine, as was the rest of the cast.  These sorts of things are rarely the fault of the actors.  And Ricci is actually pretty close to the right age, unlike Elizabeth Montgomery, who was ten years older than her subject when she played the role, but played it in a much better movie, although that movie assumed Lizzie’s guilt as well.

I guess my real objection is the usual one: Hollywood’s idea of a “true story” seems to translate as “people with these names once lived.”  The phrase “based on a true story” translates as “SOME people with these names once lived.”  It is a pity.  They could do some good history, if they wanted, and still make it entertaining.


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