We’ve all heard the gruesome rhyme about 40 whacks but what was the life of Lizzie Borden, supposed axe murderer, really like? Craig William Macneill’s often tender and frustrating portrait of a restrained and affluent, pre-suffrage woman paints a more complex portrait of late 19th-century life than one would expect from such an iconic tale of violence.
Taking on the titular role of Miss Borden is cinema It-girl Chloë Sevigny, who has been working on a more authentic vision of Lizzie Borden’s story for many years, also serving as the film’s producer. Set in 1892 Massachusetts the film opens after the murder of Lizzie’s father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and step-mother Abby (Fiona Shaw), the camera briefly skulking through the house to reveal their bloody bodies. It never seems to be a case of whodunit, spectators can only assume Lizzie famously committed those crimes, although she was acquitted. Macneill’s intention is never to answer the question of who committed the crime but more importantly ponder why they were pushed to such extremes in the first place.
Lizzie lives completely under her father’s domineering presence. At 32-years old she is treated like a child, completely tethered to Andrew who makes her feel like a juvenile. Rules about when she can leave the house, who she is allowed to go with and where she spends her money are commonplace here and speak so highly to the plight of women gaining autonomy before the women’s suffrage movement. As a lone soul, Lizzie sees no issue in being out alone in public, seeking solace in the local theatre that she attends regularly. Dressed in the finest 1890s styles, it is on one particular night that she suffers a seizure when out at the theatre, something that seems to happen to Lizzie quite frequently. Likely to be brought on by the stress of her father’s tight grip, things become more complicated when she overhears her father discussing matters of his estate – that he will not be leaving them to his daughters Lizzie and Emma (Kim Dickens), but to his wife Abby. This is just one of the many elements that add to Lizzie’s frustration with her family life, brewing a deep anger within her that is sure to froth over at any given minute.
Then enters Bridget (Kristen Stewart), an Irish immigrant who comes to the Borden household as a servant. She becomes a shining beacon of hope and understanding for Lizzie, the only person who engages with her properly and sticks up for her. She also gives Lizzie a purpose in that lonely dreary house, teaching Bridget to read and write, eventually forming a tender romantic relationship. The dullness of Lizzie’s world is cracked open when Bridget arrives, the dark and dreary rooms that Andrew refuses to light (‘Father doesn’t believe in light, he finds it extravagant’) are suddenly illuminated. Particularly so in Lizzie’s dressing room when touching caresses and the buttoning of a shirt cuff speak volumes for a hidden romance. Black and gold fabrics turn to pastels and florals that knock down Lizzie’s hard exterior and summon her awakening.
Sevigny is focused and controlled in the role, she possesses both the restraint and gusto of any of the finest leading ladies working today. The mask of Miss Borden never slips; her behaviour a result of years of micro-aggressions from her father, the understated nature of both Sevigny and Stewart’s performances are the film’s highlight. It certainly doesn’t need to be said again but this is no longer the Kristen Stewart people spent four years tormenting for a supposed ‘lack of emotions’, she conveys so much with nothing but an upwards glace or slight parting of the lips.
Due to the nature of the way that Lizzie and Bridget’s forbidden relationship is explored, the film’s pacing does tend to falter in the latter half. Especially so once we catch back up to the day of the murders and then witness Borden’s trial – often repeating previous scenes from a different perspective. It stumbles along in these moments but the film’s final scenes are emotionally charged enough to pull it through.
While not the gruesome or psychotic horror that many fans of the Borden story might have hoped for, the restraint and respect for the finer details and speculations of Lizzie’s case are to be admired. Sevigny shines in her psychological depiction of the torment of a woman before the turn of the century.
Lizzie will be available on Shudder US and Canada from April 11th
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of Screen Queens. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her lifesource is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends way too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here