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Movie Review: ‘Lizzie’ Brings the Queer Subtext to the Fore in the Latest Telling of Ms. Borden’s Ax Murders

CREDIT: Courtesy of Saban Films and Roadside Attractions

Starring: Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart, Jamey Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Denis O’Hare, Kim Dickens

Director: Craig William Macneill

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Brutal Deadly Violence and Practical Nudity

Release Date: September 14, 2018 (Limited)

Lizzie is in some ways a throwback to an era when queer attraction was subtextual and coded and never explicitly acknowledged. Except that this time there’s a lot more nudity, which would seem to defeat the purpose, save for the fact that this lack of clothes is not about sex but rather avoiding the evidence of blood stains. Otherwise, the structure fits, as this telling of the Lizzie Borden story plays up the angle of an affair between Lizzie and her family’s housemaid without ever uttering the word “lesbian,” instead opting for whispers and implications and the occasional “abomination.”

The real Borden was accused and ultimately acquitted of ax-murdering her father and stepmother in 1892 Massachusetts. While popular perception has treated her as the no-doubt-about-it culprit, much of the case remains officially uncertain, lending fictional retellings a lot of leeway in how they approach the material. Director Craig William Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass choose to emphasize psychological abuse from Borden’s father Andrew that gradually wore Lizzie down to murderous intent. Chloë Sevigny plays Lizzie as a perfectly dignified and intelligent individual who cannot quite handle the cognitive dissonance of her father insisting that she in fact has no place in polite society. As Andrew, Jamey Sheridan actually finds some tender notes, but his foundation of disgust is just too implacable.

Of course mention must be made of Kristen Stewart as the Bordens’ maid, Bridget Sullivan. Most of the family call her “Maggie” instead, which might be an archaic form of discrimination I was previously unfamiliar with (any turn of the 20th Century American historians, please let me know). Her bond with Lizzie is forged a great deal by the latter making it a point to actually call Bridget “Bridget.” Alas, but unsurprisingly, their time together is not meant to last, partly because of their power differential, partly because of the fallout of co-conspiracy, but mostly because society would force them to remain a secret. Yet in the end that suppressive atmosphere is a double-edged sword: it allows Lizzie to get away with murder because her peers cannot believe that someone from such a respectable family could commit such a heinous act. If they knew her true orientation, perhaps they would have come to a different conclusion. That’s a warped sort of privilege that this version of Lizzie could never fully psychically bear.

Lizzie is Recommended If You Like: Twisty/twisted/stomach-twisting feminist narratives

Grade: 3 out of 5 Axe Chops

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