In 1892, American woman Lizzie Borden was acquitted of killing her father and stepmother. Speculation on the murders continues to this day. Those 123 years in between has meant the difference between telling a story from a purely historical perspective (yawn) and fictionalising it to the hilt (yay). When your subject's dead, why not portray her as a glamorous anti-hero?
In new Lifetime miniseries, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, fresh from the US via Lightbox, it might as well have been called "Lizzie Did It But Don't Hold It Against Her".
Violent, camp and periodically entertaining, the dramatised version, (directed by New Zealand-born Stephen Kay), flashes back to the infamous killings, and throws another few into the mix for fun. If the character's name wasn't already mud, now she's a serial axe murderer. And a seductive, prostitute-rescuing bisexual. And much better looking than the photo on her Wikipedia page.
Christina Ricci, who also starred in Kay's hit Lifetime TV movie Lizzie Took An Ax, revels in the dark humour, adding a knowing slyness and charm as she picks off those who get in her way. Ever since The Addams Family, she's been destined for creepy roles, and now that one as a 19th century female serial killer actually exists, she's the perfect person to play her.
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Following the acquittal, the show finds the unflappable Lizzie and her uptight sister Emma (Clea DuVall) moving on with their lives in Fall River, Massachusetts, despite having become social outcasts. As they try to get hold of their father's fortune, they're thwarted by creditors who threaten to bankrupt them. Then their estranged - and irritating - criminal brother shows up, wanting a cut, and grizzling about a dead baby in a box.
So yes, it's grisly, verging on silly stuff but at least it warns you in the credits what you're in for.
When you see the axe come down on Lizzie's father's face a few seconds in, you have every opportunity to switch it off. Although it has a better sense of humour than your average period drama, the eight-part series is not exactly a literary take on events.
Still, it's more palatable than some of Lifetime's flowery offerings, with rock guitars, slo-mo sequences and gruesome violence mashing up like a gothic music video. When the mysterious deaths start piling up - a hanging, a stabbing, a bloody mess of an axeing - you can't help but wonder how much longer the titular character can get away with her bloodlust, and if the roguish detective working on the case (an impressive Cole Hauser) will be able to stay in his job.
Meanwhile, the dialogue feels like the writers basically said "screw it" with the olde English.
"Emma, c'mon, it'll be fun. We'll have a party. We'll invite all our friends," says Lizzie, as the Victorian-garbed sisters do what anyone facing bankruptcy would do: buy a really expensive house.