Lizzie, the 2018 film from director Craig William Macneill and produced by star Chloë Sevigny alongside Liz Destro and Naomi Despres, is based on the infamous story of accused axe-murderess Lizzie Borden.
Here are the facts of the case: Andrew Borden and his second wife, Abby, were found murdered with a hatchet in their family home in Massachusetts on 8 August, 1892. At the time, the only people at home where Andrew’s 32-year-old daughter, Lizzie, and the housekeeper, Bridget Sullivan. Lizzie was questioned and eventually tried for the murders, but was acquitted in 1893. Since then, she's become a notorious figure - as the infamous rhyme goes, Lizzie Borden took an axe / Gave her mother 40 whacks / When she saw when she had done / She gave her father 41.
The film delves far beyond this myth of Borden as deranged murderess to dwell on the challenges faced by women at that time and the threat that female desire (for independence, for another woman, for anything really) posed to the status quo. The result is a film that is dark and oppressive - but then so is the story itself.
Lizzie follows a period of several months in the Borden household, from the arrival of the housemaid Bridget (Kristen Stewart), through her developing friendship with Lizzie (Sevigny), and the unravelling state of affairs in the Borden house.
Some of the film’s plot is based on fact: the tension in the home due to Mr Borden (Jamey Sheridan)’s remarriage after the death of Lizzie’s mother, the financial strain on the family, the strict household and Lizzie and her sister’s lack of financial independence. One particularly chilling moment in the film comes when Lizzie’s father butchers her beloved brood of pigeons, then has the cook serve them to the family for dinner - a brutal moment that gives weight to the strain within the family (and an event apparently based in reality).
A lot of the film’s other events have been fabricated or exaggerated for narrative weight, such as Lizzie’s ill health, Mr Borden’s sexual abuse of Bridget, and the financial blackmailing of Mr Borden - though these narrative elements fit so well with the film’s claustrophobic atmosphere of impending doom that I would find it easy to believe that they were true.
The most compelling element of the film by far is the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget (this has some basis in fact - there has long been speculation about a possible romance between the two). Their chemistry is compelling, due in no small part to the stellar performances from the two actors, and this gives Lizzie its major narrative push.
No one can really know the truth about who killed the Bordens and what went on in the household on the day of their deaths, but Lizzie offers a chilling possible sequence of events. In the interest of not spoiling it for those who wish to see the film I won’t say any more, but the film doesn’t shy away from making a statement.
While not necessarily pleasant to watch, it is at least intriguing, with the oppressive and abusive family dynamics expertly drawn out, and stellar performances from Sevigny and Stewart. Still, I walked away feeling that the film could have achieved so much more.
I'm not the only one - Sevigny was also disappointed with the end result, telling HuffPost shortly after the film’s Sundance premiere that she wanted it to be a “rousing, smash-the-patriarchy piece." I can't help but wish she had succeeded.
Lizzie is released on Blu-Ray, DVD and digital HD on 8 April 2019. The DVD comes with no special features, while the Blu-Ray is rumoured to include a ten minute making of called Understanding Lizzie, so if you’re keen to know all you can about the film, opt for the Blu-Ray.