Sunday, October 21, 2018

LIZZIE - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Eleven

LIZZIE is the latest retelling of the Lizzie Borden story, from a feminist queer perspective.  Although Craig William Macneill's direction is pretty workmanlike, a  tightly written script from Bryce Kass and a very strong central performance from Chlo√ę Sevigny make this film memorable, sensitive and provocative.

As all of us know from our playground nursery rhymes, Lizzie Borden hacked her her father and stepmother to death. But the reality is far more interesting.  She was put on trial but acquitted, although she was later estranged from her sister and died a spinster. This film assumes Lizzie's guilt, as most people do, but seeks to tell us why and how she committed the murders.

As the film opens in 1892 New England we learn that Lizzie's father is wealthy but is channelling the family's wealth to her hated stepmother's family.  This was true, and indeed a motive for murder.  The rest is assertion. The film asserts that the father was serially raping the family's maids - and that the latest maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart) was having an affair with Lizzie (further motive).  The film further asserts that Lizzie was subject to seizures and lived under the threat that her father would have her institutionalised (yet further motive).  But beyond all of this, surely as an intelligent curious woman there would be great appeal in simply living free from the constraints of society.  On this point, Bridget seems more realistic than Lizzie about how far they can escape.

So much for the why. This builds up patiently over the first hour of this slow-burning and increasingly claustrophobic, tense and sinister film.  We then move to the how. What I love about the way the murders are staged is that they are both bravely open but also not at all salacious - it's a fine balance that the movie pulls off well - partly because the focus is as much on Bridget's increasingly desperate reaction as it is to Lizzie's adrenaline-fuelled release.

The resulting film is as much social examination of the precarious situation of women - rich or poor - in this society and a desperately sad love story as it is a conventional true crime drama. On the latter point certain parts of the testimony differ from the published record so that purists may be put off this film. Nonetheless it contains what appears to be real emotional truth.

LIZZIE has a running time of 105 minutes and is rated R. The film played Sundance 2018 and opened in the USA in September. It opens in the UK on November 16th.

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