(London Film Festival, October 11th, 2018, Picturehouse Central, 18:15)
"Lizzie" is a psychological thriller based on the infamous 1892 axe murder of 'The Borden Family' in 'Fall River', Massachusetts. The film explores Lizzie Borden’s (Chloë Sevigny) life, focusing on the period leading up to the murders and their immediate aftermath, and reveals many layers of the strange, fragile woman who stood accused of the brutal crime. As an unmarried woman of 32, and a social outcast, Lizzie lives a claustrophobic life under her father’s Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) cold and domineering control. When Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), a young maid, comes to work for the family, Lizzie finds a sympathetic, kindred spirit, and a chance intimacy that blossoms into a wicked plan, and a dark, unsettling end.
This film is about America’s 115 year old classic unsolved crime. The what's a given. The who and the how badger our brains for a solution. Well, for some anyway. It's less a who-dunnit than a how-dunnit. The scene of Lizzie Borden's trial for the murders of her father and stepmother was a spectacle unparalleled by any previous American murder case. Reporters from all over 'The United States' flocked to 'Fall River', Massachusetts, to witness the best show in the country. Local reporters fortunate enough to have found employment in Bristol County sent exclusives to papers around the world. Well known columnists arrived with their entourages and took up conspicuous seats in the courtroom. Suddenly a mill town which had been of interest only in their newspaper's business sections became universally known through extended front page exposure. Similarly, a woman whose typicality was her most distinctive feature became notorious, and her trial, a cause crlbre. For 'Fall River' and most of America, the murders became emblematic of the perils of foreign immigration, social disorder, or feminine transgression. In contrast, feminists used the trial to call for a truly representative jury system which would enable women like Lizzie Borden to be tried by a jury of their peer.
Over one hundred years later, the enduring popular fascination with 'The Borden' mystery and it's central enigmatic character convened a second inquest. Rather than looking for answers in a detailed analysis of the social context, the film invents fictitious characters or invest historical actors with new characteristics and imagined psychologicalor even neurological states. Indeed, the implications of Lizzie Borden's guilt remain sufficiently disturbing decades after the crime that even authors who believe she committed the murders nonetheless feel compelled to provide medical explanations for her guilt and her ultimate irresponsibility. Regardless of whether they embrace or eschew such scientific, rational explanations, all commentators seeking the definitive solution share the dilemma of Borden's contemporaries: reconciling the public image of the exemplary Miss Lizzie with their vision of a murderess. Unfortunately, they also respond by uncritically replicating nineteenth-century class and gender norms in their own representations of Borden. Instead of placing Lizzie Borden and the murders of her father and stepmother in the context of their lives in 'Fall River', the film describes the case against a generalized backdrop of dislocated and dehistoricized social experience.
Lizzie Borden is a dark spark of inspiration in our attempts to terrify one another. The film explores the backstory to understand her in both a historical and psychological context, to explore the framework of her potential motivation, and, if she did in fact commit these murders, to question how such dangerous impulses might begin to manifest in someone. She was a sociopath. She was a broken soul forced to do what was necessary. The film brings the audience very close to Lizzie and her life, to put them in the room with her so that their assessment of her circumstances would feel almost first person rather than removed and dispassionate. To that end the film places an emphasis on Lizzie’s everyday routine, and the stillness and claustrophobia of her home, allowing the narrative to unfold with measured restraint and an escalating sense of dread. As a result, there's an intentional awareness of the camera that, at times, lingers in uninterrupted takes allowing the viewer's eyes to wander within the frame, observing details that might otherwise go unnoticed; encouraging introspection and the uncomfortable feeling that you’re invading the character's privacy. It's in the subtle, menacing, manipulation of the ordinary that our truest fears are revealed, when the circumstances, though awful, are grounded in realism.