“Marks the exciting return of a mercurial British talent”
Back from obscurity, and eleven years after his divisive last film Soi Cowboy, the British filmmaker Thomas Clay has returned in blistering style. Fanny Lye Deliver’d is a comic folk horror that erupts into a feminist story of woman’s rebirth and fiery retribution. It’s very likely that you won’t see anything like it all year. Shot on vintage 35mm film, Clay’s enthralling Puritan western is reminiscent of the provocative home-invasion horrors of the 1970s, and a rebellious sibling of sorts to Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England. But with its religious fever and violent madness, the filmmaker’s clearest point of reference is the legendary cult classic Witchfinder General.
Entirely contained within an isolated Shropshire farm in England, 1657, this quirky, very-adult film tells the story of Fanny Lye (Maxine Peake), a devout woman who’s strict Puritan life is shattered by the arrival of Thomas (Freddie Fox) and Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds), two enigmatic lovers on the run. Fanny is the mother of her boy Arthur (Zak Adams), and the wife of John Lye (Charles Dance), a domineering ex-military man who rules with a bible in one hand, and a whip in the other.
John is a cruel and callous patriarch, quick to put his family in their place (which is beneath him, the man of the house). One of the first things we see him do is scold his son for letting Fanny discipline him. “Never let a woman get the better of you,” he says. It’s a statement that echoes throughout, both in John’s treatment of Fanny, and the woman she becomes. Fanny, the reserved and dutiful wife she is, keeps her head down and her mind free from impurities. But even in its early stages, Maxine Peake’s captivating performance hints towards a glimmer of resentment slowly burning in secret. Her suppressed fire is unleashed when Thomas, and his newly wed Rebecca, stumble naked upon their farm, seeking refuge from the murderous High Sheriff (Peter McDonald).
Thomas and Rebecca are free spirits, and their garden-crashing arrival causes violent upheaval within the Puritan bubble of Fanny’s life. Opposing ideals soon clash, but Thomas is something of a silver-tongued devil. He worms his way into John’s good books through their shared war history, and then into Fanny’s conscience through a series of playful flirtations. Rebecca, too, plants seeds of change. In a shy and amusing act of bonding, she openly confides in Fanny that she sleeps with whoever she wants (regardless of gender), because she is her own woman. Rebecca’s confession begins the process of destabilising Fanny’s ordered existence and enclosed worldview; a view that has been aggressively curated by her husband and religious beliefs.
Once the film reaches this stage, it takes on the form of a play. One location, a handful of colourful characters, each with different viewpoints, and a big sword hanging above the fireplace. All Clay has to do now is let the drama erupt from a melting pot of conflict. It may tip its hat towards a home-invasion horror, but Clay is more interested in exploring ideas of faith and liberation, and, in the process, nudges his film into thrillingly subversive directions. It’s a slow burn, but one that is made enrapturing by great performances all around.
Charles Dances chews up the scenery, as callous and magnetic as you’d expect. Relative newcomer Tanya Reynolds enchants from the moment she speaks, aided by an old-fashioned narration that imbues the film with historical charm, but its awkward inclusion does undercut several moments of tension. Freddie Fox is particularly impressive, dazzling in the film’s mesmerising second act, all but shredding his skin as he morphs into a Shakespearean anti-hero. And simmering in the background is Maxine Peake, who blazes as the unraveling Fanny Lye. The film’s core rests on how much you connect with Fanny’s emotional plight as she emerges out from her cracking shell, solidified by a lifetime of oppression. Peake’s astute performance makes it an effortless task.
The first two thirds of the film are more interesting than its violent finale, and in the process, it loses much of its misty intrigue the more it drifts towards folk revenge horror. There’s also nothing too surprising in the way it ends due to Clay’s insistence on a narrative voice-over that implies who lives and dies. These are unfortunate blemishes in an otherwise outrageous slice of period melodrama.
A lot of love has gone into creating this miniature dome of 17th century England, the directing, writing and music all done by Clay. The farmhouse where everything is set was built from scratch to add to the film’s authenticity. Factor in Clay’s script, which takes great pleasure in the period specific dialogue, and you have a film that feels hand-crafted from its first moments all the way to its idealistic epilogue. There’s no mistaking this as a work of singular, uncompromising vision, and that opens the film up to a certain degree of messiness. But there’s a charm to its shaggy construction, like a cosy home showing all its knots and nails.
In the end, Clay’s creative choices are a little too unorthodox for his own good. The unusual title is litmus test all on its own. A kitchen sink approach to genre and tone has various degrees of success, and the peculiar result will send casual viewers running for the hills. But unorthodox is not a bad thing, especially when it’s this fresh and wild. What’s clear is that Fanny Lye Deliver’d marks the exciting return of a mercurial British talent. On the evidence of this rapturous tale of a woman’s rebirth, I cannot wait to see what Thomas Clay delivers next.
Director: Thomas Clay
Producers: Zorana Piggott, Philippe Bober, Robert Cannan, Joseph Lang, Michel Merkt
Cast: Maxine Peake, Charles Dance, Freddie Fox, Tanya Reynolds
Release Date: 26 June 2020
Featured image courtesy of Vertigo Releasing