Lizzie Borden took an axe, the eerie old rhyme starts, and we all know what happened next. But how many of us know what happened to Borden before she ever picked it up?
Was she just a heartless murderer, or was there more to her story that has been kept hidden away from view all these years?
The new Lizzie movie (starring Chloe Sevigny in the title role and Kristen Stewart as her Irish maid and lover Bridget) complicates the story we thought we knew by reminding us just how hard it was to be a woman in the 19 century in this nation.
What do you do when you have no rights, when your life and future are dependent on the ever changing whims of powerful men? That question and more are asked in Lizzie, the provocative new modern re-telling of the very real life story of Lizzie Borden, the young New England society women who famously murdered her rich father and step mother with an axe.
It wasn't so very long ago after all that women here found themselves virtually imprisoned by the laws of men. They couldn't vote, there were laws denying married women ownership of wages, money and property (they were required to turn them all over to their husband), they couldn't attend most universities, they were denied all professional careers, they were simply told to stay at home and raise children.
All of this purposely left them dependent on men, it forbid them any hope of their own independence. No matter where they turned they saw unwelcome reminders that this was mans world and that any hope of freedom or progress would be based on rights that would never be civilly discussed never mind granted.
It's clear from the outset of Lizzie that the emotional temperature of the Borden household in River, Massachusetts is set at somewhere permanently below freezing. Her father Andrew (played with withering self righteousness by Jeremey Sheridan) is a so-called pillar of the community who has mainly enriched himself by buying and selling off the assets of distressed companies, thoughtlessly ruining lives in the process.
Lizzie's step mother Abby (played by Ireland's Fiona Shaw) treats her like an uninvited guest in her own home and is suspected by her step daughter of marrying her father for money. Her uncle John Morse (a leering wolf in sheeps clothing played by Denis O'Hare) is angling to step in and strip Lizzie and her sister from inheriting a dime when her old man passes. The barometer is clearly set for storms.
In real life Lizzie's father Andrew Borden was, it is commonly agreed, a joyless tightwad. He refused to install electric light in his home for years after it was a common fixture elsewhere. He couldn't even bring himself to install indoor plumbing, considering it an expensive extravagance that no one in their right mind would pay for.
As Sheridan reminds us in his pitch perfect performance, loudly announced pillars of the community like Andrew Borden can hide a multitude of sins when no one's looking and before the new Irish maid Bridget (Stewart) has unpacked her suitcase he is stealing into her room late at night to abuse her, right under his step wife's nose.
Lizzie paints a broadly sympathetic portrait of the title character, which may come as a surprise to many audience members familiar with the 1892 murder case. First of all we see just how powerless she is in this family, where her independent streak is considered an unspeakable affront to male pride.
Lizzie has been a passion project for star Chloe Sevigny for at least ten years (she produces and stars) and her passion is evident in her electrifying screen performance, which I have to say rivals the great screen performances of the Hollywood golden age. She's electrifying and so committed to the part that she carries every frame of the film from start to finish.
Kristen Stewart has long since proved there is much more to her talent than being rescued from brooding vampires in those godawful Twilight movies opposite Robert Pattinson. As Bridget the Irish maid she is the audiences nervous guide to the tension filled Borden household, allowing us to see what happens to a normal person stuck in these extraordinary circumstances.
Lizzie's kindness toward Bridget comes from her awareness of what it feels like to be condescended to and bossed around and Lizzie is the only one who recognizes Bridget's humanity (the real life Lizzie Borden had volunteered to work extensively with immigrants) and that kindness is retuned in a heartfelt friendship.
People thrown together in very oppressive circumstances can bond in ways that are deeper than usual. No sooner do the two young women meet than their friendship becomes something much more. It's really not that controversial to add a lesbian affair to the Lizzie story, since the real life Lizzie was thought to be one and writers have been remarking on the unusually close personal bond between Lizzie and Bridget since the early 1930's and before.
There is also the suggestion, which was actually heavily implied at the time, that Andrew Borden has sexually abused his own daughter when she was a child. Certainly he has bullied her for her entire life, as is made clear in the opening scenes. But when he discovers her making love to Bridget his disgust and contempt help set the scene for what follows.
Lizzie is subject to occasional epileptic fits, a condition that could actually see you committed to an asylum in the 19 century, and we see Andrew openly contemplate just such a move with the delighted John Morse (that would get her out of his way) as Lizzie listens on just outside the closed door meeting.
Given that there is no love lost and no real prospect of an inheritance, the question isn't so much how as much as when? Andrew has provided Lizzie with ample motives for his murder, all that seems to remain in this telling is exactly what she'll do when the time comes?
But the relationship that blooms between the two young women is what really makes this telling of the Borden story special. With love as a guide they have a thing to fight for and a reason to act and it helps that the chemistry between Sevigny and Stewart is so palpable. When Andrew Borden makes it clear that he doesn't approve of their relationship and has plans to separate the two women, matters finally come to a head.
Some critics have called Lizzie overlong and too ponderous, but I disagree. I would argue that the tensions in the Borden household deserve and reward closer viewing, as does the fine character work done by this stellar cast.
Lizzie is all about finding your freedom in an era when that freedom for women is virtually impossible. It's about standing up to bullying men when you know that they hold all the cards and will play them ruthlessly. It's also about the importance of love in a system that considers it weak and of no consequence. It couldn't be more timely in this age of ranting ideologues.
Lizzie shows us just how hard a bargain patriarchy draws so that women can enjoy just an once of the freedom that men take as a birthright. Lizzie eventually inherits her great fortune, which means she inherits her freedom, but the price in the end is too steep. She loses her sister's love, she loses her social standing, most of all she loses Bridget. So women pay more and get less. In that sense her era is not far enough away from our own yet.
Lizzie opens September 14.