Lizzie (2018)

Chloe Sevigny strikes her axe blows against an oppressive patriarchy in Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie – with superb support from Kristen Stewart.

Family Fortunes

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Lizzie is a feminist, female-centred re-imagination of the 19th century New England true story that became a folk legend.

As the old rhyme goes, ‘Lizzie Borden with an axe/Gave her mother 40 whacks./When she saw what she had done/She gave her father 41.’ Starring as Lizzie, in this film Chloe Sevigny ‘s blows are struck against an oppressive patriarchy.

Lizzie turns the tale into a psychological thriller that starts with the sensational murders and is told in flashbacks until it comes full circle. Crucial to the atmosphere is the cold, wooden-floored mansion where the murders take place. The film is strangely reminiscent of the biopic of another closeted spinster, A Quiet Passion, just a few years earlier: the house the Borden family lives in is kept candle-lit, despite the coming of electricity, and it’s alive with unwelcome creaks and footsteps. And there’s an air of unexplained mystery surrounding them as anonymous threatening notes are being left on the front door.

Almost all the action takes place in this house full of unhappy women shut out from life by Lizzie’s tyrannical father (Jamey Sheridan), a sexual predator, and her enabling step-mother (Fiona Shaw). Lizzie’s epilepsy brings shame on her strait-laced wealthy family, so though she’s an adult, she’s kept at home. Until new Irish maid Bridget (Kristen Stewart) arrives, Lizzie’s loneliness is relieved only by her (symbolic) beloved caged birds. In this claustrophobic house of suppressed female misery, a tentative lesbian affair flourishes between Lizzie and Bridget. Though both are powerless, they send out little tendrils of kindness to each other, leaving handwritten notes in the linen or snatching moments alone.

Was there murderous collusion between the two? A definitive version of the facts has never come out and so the film is a well acted, gripping psychological study of what might have happened. Though we know how it must end, it’s still compelling – and bloody. Sevigny’s Lizzie has a cold inner strength despite her physical weaknesses; Kristen Stewart is superb as the nervous yet courageous Bridget and the chemistry between them creates an intriguing, modern interpretation of the story’s complexities.

Lizzie screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 14 December in the UK.

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