Even though the crime of which she was accused took place more than a century ago, the name Lizzie Borden still looms large in the American consciousness.
For those unfamiliar with the details, her father, Andrew, and stepmother, Abby, were brutally murdered with an axe in their Fall River, Mass., house on the morning of Aug. 4, 1892. At the time of the killings, both Lizzie and the household maid, Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, were at home, but claimed to have seen or heard nothing out of the ordinary. Eventually, Lizzie was arrested and charged with the murders. After a sensational trial that dominated news headlines across America, she was found innocent by the jury, but has been widely assumed to have been guilty ever since.
Of the countless fictional renderings that have been inspired by this legendary true-crime story, the latest is the simply titled film, “Lizzie,” a dream project of its star, Chloë Sevigny. In development for years, it was slated to be realized as an HBO miniseries until a rival production on the same subject caused the network to pull the plug. Undeterred, Sevigny and her writer, Bryce Kass, bought back the rights and proceeded with production of a feature film instead.
Directed by Craig William Macneill, it stars Sevigny as Lizzie, presented here as a strong-willed and independent woman who chafes at the repression she must endure in the home of her wealthy, mean-spirited father and his cold, callous second wife. When the Bordens hire pretty young Bridget (Kristen Stewart) as their new maid, the lonely Lizzie senses a kindred spirit, turning to her for kindness and comfort. The two women begin a clandestine friendship which deepens into something more, even as the oppressive environment of the household pushes Lizzie ever closer to a breaking point.
Lizzie Borden’s sexuality has long been the subject of speculation — she never married despite the wealth she inherited from her father — but Kass’ screenplay is the first time this possibility has been explored within the context of her alleged crime. It’s a potent addition to the story, but though it plays a part in the way “Lizzie” changes our perspective on these brutal murders, it doesn’t provide an explanation for them. The movie does not take the sensationalist stance of suggesting that a lesbian affair was the real motive behind this notorious crime; the explanation it offers comes from a feminist sensibility that runs much deeper than sexual orientation.
Lizzie and Bridget — along with all the other women of the late 19th-century world in which they live — are denied agency over their own lives by the whims of a male-centric social structure that deems them as lesser beings, or worse, as possessions. In this light, the murder of the elder Bordens looks like an act of revolution, a blow for freedom struck by a de-facto slave with nothing left to lose and everything to gain.
Kass’ screenplay is able to bring these ideas to the forefront without forcing them, partly because historical record is on his side in reinforcing the idea of masculine autocracy in the Borden household. Andrew Borden is well-documented to have been a spiteful and parsimonious dictator who ruled his little empire with an iron fist and a stubborn will. Still, it’s not so much that “Lizzie” presents him as a tyrant begging for a fall — although it does — as that it places its emphasis on the slow, cumulative effect of his bullying upon his daughter. We bear witness to a proverbial “death by a thousand cuts” as a smart and self-aware woman, burning for autonomy, is subjected to one humiliation after another, and this century-old piece of history is reframed as an apt and timely fable for the #TimesUp era.