Lizzie (2018) Film Review

FILM REVIEW

written by Sam Kolesnik

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The story of Lizzie Borden, a woman accused of axe-murdering her father and stepmother in 1892, has been told time and time again. Craig William Macneill’s 2018 film, Lizzie, brings something fresh and feminist to the canon. Written by Bryce Kass, Lizzie is an artful interpretation of historical circumstance, less a series of horrific events and more an exploration of motive.

Lizzie, played by Chloë Sevigny, is captive in late-1800s patriarchal confines. Her father, Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan), is in complete control of her life, a fact he seems to relish. The Borden patron is portrayed as an abusive miser, lording his power over both his neglected wife and unmarried daughters. Lizzie is the only one in the house who overtly protests her father’s dominion and as her resistance wages on, so does her suffering. If the pressing walls of society weren’t enough, Lizzie also suffers from untreatable seizures.   

There’s a feeling of claustrophobia as Lizzie’s plight unfolds. Her seizures are inexplicable according to the doctor, though her father suggests her emotions might be to blame. When she inquires with her father about her own inheritance, she’s quite literally shut out of the room, and yet when things run afoul for the family, she’s the first one to blame. Andrew Borden chips away at Lizzie’s indomitable spirit by isolating her from things (and people) she loves. Most frustrating is that even though she displays many superior qualities to her father, she is prisoner to his authority. In a touching moment, Lizzie takes a bird out of a cage in the barn and seems to study it for answers about her own lack of freedom.  

This film would not be half the film it is without Kristen Stewart’s evocative performance as Bridget Sullivan, the young maid in service to the Borden household. Stewart gives Bridget a pained fragility that serves as emotional counterpoint to Lizzie’s simmering rage. Their union is a powerful catalyst in that they share both a genuine attraction and affection for one another, but also a joint captivity. There’s something about Bridget’s presence that arouses in Lizzie a protective fierceness and the stakes feel highest when Bridget is under threat. Stewart’s performance is impressive; her expressions draw the audience into her helpless world. We’re rooting for her before she’s even given us cause. Sevigny’s performance is most engaging in scenes where Lizzie’s anger simmers, hidden behind a veil of cold wit. When Lizzie does have dramatic or emotional peaks, they somehow feel aberrant, which is fitting for the repression of the era.

The film doesn’t shy away from showing the horror of the notorious murders, themselves, but Lizzie is not centered around the act of the crime. The axe murder scene, which could so easily be exploitative under a different hand than Macneill’s, does not linger unnecessarily. The scene features a very raw performance by both Stewart and Sevigny. The murders are portrayed in their due horror, but with a sense of desperation on the part of the characters -- a desperation for freedom above all else. There seems to be an implicit sentiment punctuated with each strike of the axe — that murder wasn’t their first choice for freedom -- just the only one available. Shots of birds flying in flock overhead as women conspire for their own liberation (if only on a small scale) drive home a feminist allegory in this fresh take on an old story.

Lizzie (2018) is an emotional and compelling exploration of the historical subjugation of women told through a microscope on a notorious murder legend.