Lizzie— a psychological thriller– is a reinterpretation of the story of Lizzie Borden, the accused murderer of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892. Starring and produced by Chloe Sevigny and premiering at Sundance Film Festival last year, the viewer sees the highly restrictive circumstances of women in a patriarchal society and what happens to them when they actively fight against a lifetime of subjugation.
Lizzie Borden, a thirty-two year old single woman, has very few options other than residing with her tyrannical father, a wealthy corrupt banker and real estate mogul. Her passive stepmother, Abby (the wonderful Fiona Shaw), and elder sister, Emma (Kim Dickens) all live under Andrew’s oppressive roof. An Irish immigrant, Bridget Sullivan (a fine-tuned performance by Kristen Stewart), moves in to the Borden residence as a maid. At first, seeking perhaps solace and a kindred spirit in Bridget, Lizzie teaches her to read. Soon Lizzie and Bridget form an intimate but conspiratorial relationship.
The theme is female empowerment in a Gilded Age of punitive patriarchal strictures. Lizzie’s uncle and stepmother provide no practical escape from her father’s brutal supervision. She is a woman on the verge of a mental and physical breakdown. Several scenes with pigeons that Lizzie nurtures and loves provide a brilliant metaphor for Lizzie’s own free-spirit: living in a cage, yearning for freedom and release from her entrapment.
Lizzie‘s cinematography (by Noah Greenberg) expertly conveys the dark, foreboding patriarchy in camera angles of candle-lit windows, doorways, behind stair-railings and bedroom doors. The lighting alone elicits the sense that Lizzie and Bridget are both trapped, living a claustrophobic, spiritless life.
Although the pacing will challenge the patience of some viewers, the opening scenes justifiably hook the viewer in. There is much to praise here besides the fantastic sepia-toned and black-and-white camera shots. Lizzie is a thought-provoking and elegant Victorian-period tale of women attempting to take their destinies into their own hands when society will not allow that.
Lizzie may, at times, lack energy, due to slow pacing, but the hushed and mute austerity of the action plot and the character development are engaging and well-worth seeing. Sometimes things unsaid increases the dramatic tension necessary to sustain a film. Lizzie reflects on the abuse of power, class and sexual dynamics of a male dominated society that existed not so long ago. Today’s Handmaid’s Tale?
Note: DVD available on Netflix