“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” If Chloë Sevigny’s startling performance is anything to go by, then rest assured, there is no shortage of dramatically driven female actresses. Empowered by her calculating transformation, the complexity of her character shifts into a dark and bewitching territory where you may never want to underestimate a woman again.
It’s a sad state of affairs when watching Craig William Macneil’s Lizzie can feel like a broken record. It’s fair to say that during the opening proceedings from the London Film Festival, there has been an undeniable selection of films screened for the press with a notable ‘female edge’. Whether it is a 50s melodrama (Wildlife) or an ode to the Japanese revenge thriller (Assassination Nation), the documentation of the female plight demonstrates one, clear thing – nothing has changed. Throughout the ages, women have suffered in silence with the toils of abuse, ridicule or the wrath of a patriarchal male entitlement. Lizzie provides more fuel to the fire and represents another harrowing example of that power.
The notorious tale of Lizzie Borden is more of an American folklore, universal in its approach in its accommodation to those who are unfamiliar with the story. Based on the factual account of the Borden family axe murders of August 4th 1892, the infamous legend has the equivalence of a Netflix true crime documentary. Baring the hallmarks of Making a Murderer, Macneil’s presentation is shaped like a crime scene – the bloodstained walls, the murdered bodies and the eerie silence broken by the filtered screams and calls for help. That’s just the opening scene, introducing its audience to the eventual and historical aftermath. Transforming itself into a Crimewatch reconstruction, what follows is the analytical deconstruction of those murders, piecing together the evidence and motivations leading up to that fateful circumstance. Before it has time to grab a solicitor for legal consultation, Lizzie pins its suspicions on its focal suspects of Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) and her maid Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart).
What I love about Macneil’s direction is how he captures the essence of a psychological horror movie with Gothic undertones. It finds its chaotic edge through its delightful score, giving the impression of cranking up the tension after every incidental wave of Borden discourse. The slow-burn and atmospheric nature of its setting means that candlelight scenes are ghostly in appearance, alternatively suggesting something supernatural was plaguing the Borden household prior to the murders.
It could have been an interesting analysis if the film committed to its spiritual theme or realistically imply other murderous candidates befitting of an Agatha Christie novel. However, Lizzie conjures up its own theory thanks to its script-based research. Depending on your constructive outlook, its narrative can be viewed as either a focussed necessity, living up to its infamous legend or a missed opportunity to delve deeper.
There’s nothing mysterious about a patriarchal environment and the only thing haunting the Borden household is a pent-up, tyrannical rage of entitlement, sexual abuse, assault, double standards and toxic masculinity – all inhabited by Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan).
Under close examination, Lizzie is the epitome of ‘female rage’ in an example of what occurs when you back someone into an oppressive corner and leave them with no option.
Sevigny’s portrayal is the embodiment of a 19th Century rebel with plenty of ‘undesirable’ qualities (according to the attitudes of the day). She’s unmarried with no potential suitor, is plagued by a illness that causes epileptic style fits and is caught in a lesbian affair with Bridget. No matter what she does or how inconsistent the patriarchal society is in accordance to her standards, she will always remain a disappointment. In one pivotal scene, her father calls her an “abomination”. “Then, at last, we are on equal footing, father.” she defiantly replies, interlaced with a fighting sense of humour.
Lizzie’s relationship with Bridget comes as no surprise considering the cruelty and powerlessness endured by women. The dynamic chemistry between Kristen Stewart (positively demonstrating her range and emboldened talent post Twilight) and Sevigny is highly effective in developing an appealing and understanding companionship under the tumultuous circumstances. Emotionally, their divergent beliefs are opposite to each other, but they introduce a relevancy that currently impacts today’s world.
Lizzie paints a solid and compelling argument for the suspicious complicity without extending itself beyond its stage play feel. There are faults and weakness due to its uncomplicated scope and skimming over possible details, but they never equate to a distracting feel. It has enough serviceable and dramatic tension to give it a noteworthy attention. Judging by its ending, its claustrophobic atmosphere helps shape Lizzie into a chilling experience.
LIZZIE is screening as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2018. For screening details and ticket availability, please visit their website for more details.