BFI London Film Festival: Lizzie

Directed by Craig William Macneill
Starring Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Kim Dickens, Fiona Shaw, Denis O’Hare and Jeff Perry
Screening at LFF October 11th, 13th and 20th 2018

by Joanna Orland

Lizzie Borden gained notoriety as the primary suspect for the murders of her father and stepmother in 1892, Fall River Massachusetts. She was eventually acquitted of the crimes, but remained associated with them for the rest of her life, until her death in 1927. There are many theories as to what actually happened the morning of the Bordens’ murders, and the film Lizzie explores its own take on this.

When housemaid Bridget Sullivan (Stewart) comes to work at the Borden house, Lizzie (Sevigny) takes her under her wing, educates her, and becomes her friend and confidante. The two grow close, forming a romantic relationship. All the while, Lizzie’s father Andrew is a tyrannical patriarch, squandering away Lizzie’s inheritance and raping Bridget as he pleases.

Lizzie reframes the gruesome story of the axe murders for the ‘Me Too’ era; rather than simply repeat one of the many popular theories, director Craig William Macneill positions the murders as Lizzie Borden’s revenge on the patriarchy. Tonally a horror thriller with elements of erotica, the film takes many liberties with the truth, as no one truly knows what unfolded in the Borden household in the weeks leading up to the murders.

By getting the murders out of the way towards the start of the film, the story is allowed room to build without the audience waiting for that final scene. In spite of the dreaded murders happening so early, Macneill manages a sense of foreboding and suspense throughout, creating a slow-burn thriller. Lizzie is not only good filmmaking, but a bold political statement: It takes a ‘villain’ from history, and makes them sympathetic to support an important cause of today.

Political, clever, engaging and suspenseful, Lizzie retells the infamous story of the alleged axe murderer for the modern era. Whether or not this is the right thing to do with such a gruesome story is up for debate; one which the film surely welcomes.


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