There is something wildly freeing about the savage killings in ‘Lizzie,’ a distinctly feminist take on the notorious Lizzie Borden, history’s most famous, if unproven, mom-and-pop slayer.
This sense of liberation derives from murders enacted with the methodical exhilaration of a jailbreak — a cathartic response to years of oppression by her miserly father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), and loathed stepmother, Abby (Fiona Shaw). And when Lizzie strips naked before hacking her two tormentors to slivers, her nudity isn’t simply practical: It’s the repudiation of a 19th-century wardrobe that controlled women’s movements as thoroughly as men did.
As played with fierce conviction by Chloe Sevigny (whose longtime fascination with Borden led her to commission the script from her friend, Bryce Kass), Lizzie is headstrong, wily and, possibly, an epileptic.
A 32-year-old society spinster in one of Massachusetts’ wealthiest families, she moves resolutely through the gloomy Borden household, every creak and groan contributing to its coffinlike atmosphere. The arrival of Bridget (Kristen Stewart, wary and watchful), a deceptively timid Irish maid, arouses Lizzie’s interest and her father’s, too: twin longings that will help explain Lizzie’s eventual violence and subvert a plot reeking with male power.
‘Lizzie’ isn’t perfect — the pacing can flag, and the lovely Kim Dickens, as Lizzie’s older sister, barely registers — but Sevigny’s intelligence and formidable control keep the melodrama grounded. Her empathy for Borden, whose fragile constitution belies a searing will, is palpable, as is the sense of inescapable peril surrounding the two female leads.
When Andrew slides into Bridget’s bed, her terrified face fills the frame; and when Lizzie’s slimy uncle John (a gleefully malevolent Denis O’Hare) reminds her who will control her inheritance, his quietly menacing threats, delivered through clenched teeth, are magnified in extreme close-up.
Together, Craig William Macneill’s focused direction and Noah Greenberg’s superb cinematography weave a suffocating cocoon around the two women. Nothing is wasted, and everything has a point: the doomed, flapping pet pigeons whose blood will later be repurposed to mislead investigators; the sudden seizure that grips Lizzie at the opera, with the camera gazing down on her twitching body. Yet while the movie places us firmly in her corner, it refuses to make her an unhinged victim, laying out her coldblooded plans with gory relish.
“No one will save you from what is to come,” reads an anonymous note on the Bordens’ doorstep before the murders. It’s intended for Andrew but could be read as a warning to any one of the characters. ‘Lizzie’ might feel like an escape story, but its killer and her accomplice, locked in a furtive attachment, are still a long way from being free.
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‘Lizzie’ releases in the UAE on March 14.