Arts & Culture

‘Lizzie’ hacks away at patriarchy

Avon Cinema’s latest thriller revisits Lizzie Borden murder mystery through feminist lens

By
Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Chloë Sevigny plays Lizzie Borden in Craig Macneill’s new take on the 19th-century Massachusetts murders. Sevigny acts beside Kristen Stewart in her role as Bridget, the Borden family’s Irish maid.

From the very beginning of Craig Macneill’s film “Lizzie,” viewers are right behind the fierce female protagonist, played by Chloë Sevigny. We watch her walk into the impending murder scene, we hear a scream, then see her stepmother’s corpse on the ground next to the infamous date: August 4, 1892.

In 1892, the real Lizzie Borden was tried for —­ and acquitted of — her father and stepmother’s axe murders in Fall River, Massachusetts. Was she a fiery, passionate woman, suffocated by the patriarchy until her resentment boiled into violence? Perhaps — that’s certainly how Macneill portrays her. This new take on the age-old story of the Borden murders presents a radical explanation for the mysterious bloody deaths of Andrew Borden (played by Jamey Sheridan) and Abby Borden (Fiona Shaw).

Though it leans toward the trope of the 19th-century madwoman — painting Lizzie as a rebellious spinster whose defiant outbursts and epileptic fits lead her father to consider sending her away — this depiction of the Borden murders packs a feminist punch. Lizzie holds immense power on screen, and while rejecting her father, she casts off other oppressive forces as well, from the corset around her waist to the legal barriers blocking her inheritance.

Bridget (Kristen Stewart), the Bordens’ new Irish maid, is the perfect complement to Lizzie. She appears timid, and there is an instant connection between her and the strong and unruly spinster. The two become secret lovers and partners in crime, sharing intimate moments in a shed where Lizzie goes to escape from her repressive household. Lizzie teaches Bridget to read, Bridget helps Lizzie dress and undress and together they make a powerful pair.

Bridget faces domination by Lizzie’s father as well — every night he comes into her room and rapes her. But it is Lizzie who fights back, scattering pieces of a broken mirror outside of Bridget’s door for her father to step on as he flees the site of his sin. Lizzie sees her father’s vulnerability — he regularly receives threatening notes, and she undertakes the dangerous task of tracing their origins. Lizzie faces violence and ridicule for questioning male authority, but her strong will keeps her going.

Macneill’s feminist reimagination of this classic murder mystery walks the line between thriller and old-fashioned drama. Women often fill the screen, sometimes stoic and other times quivering with emotion. The film jumps around in time, revealing more about Lizzie and about the murders as the story unfolds. Viewers have the chance to see the opening scene three times throughout the course of the film, suspense building each time we see the body beside the date. At the end of it all is a fervent, unstoppable woman hacking away at the patriarchy.