Fanny Lye Deliver’d, 2019.
Directed by Thomas Clay.
Starring Maxine Peake, Charles Dance, Freddie Fox, Tanya Reynolds, Zak Adams, Peter McDonald, Perry Fitzpatrick and Kenneth Collard.
Set on an isolated farm in Shropshire in 1657, this is the story of Fanny Lye, a woman who learns to transcend her oppressive marriage and discover a new world of possibility – albeit at great personal cost. Living a life of Puritan stricture with husband John and young son Arthur, Fanny Lye’s world is shaken to its core by the unexpected arrival of two strangers in need, a young couple closely pursued by a ruthless sheriff and his deputy.
Fanny Lye Deliver’d is a film several years in the making, from Thomas Clay, and the passion, effort and attention to detail is undeniable. This self-styled “Puritan Western” swaps the barren deserts of the Wild West for the wilderness of an isolated farm in seventeenth century Shropshire. Fanny Lye (a magnetic Maxine Peake) and her austere husband John (a foreboding Charles Dance), along with their young son Arthur (Zak Adams), keep themselves to themselves – other than on Sundays, when they dedicate themselves to God.
This is England in the grip of Puritanism and under Oliver Cromwell’s rule, both of which build a repressed and loaded atmosphere. Into this ordered existence drops young couple Thomas Ashbury (Freddie Fox) and Rebecca Henshaw (Tanya Reynolds in her feature film debut), who claim to have been robbed while starting off on a journey to the New World. Intrigued by their spirit, it is Fanny who urges the suspicious John to remember his Christian duty and open up their home to the vulnerable pair.
The shift in the film’s tone is gradual enough to justify its quite extreme climax, with darkness and perversity gradually sweeping the farm quietly enough to create an eerie but taut atmosphere. It’s not always clear exactly where Fanny Lye Deliver’d is going, or how far it will go, but this could be seen as part of its unnerving beauty. Minds are encouraged to wonder and second guess. The nervous energy is also amplified by a haughty High Sheriff for the Council of State (a slimy Peter McDonald) and his Deputy (Perry Fitzpatrick), circling around the area for a sniff of this couple, whom he considers criminal.
As Fanny Lye Deliver’d moves to embrace its folk horror label, frenzy and gore increases. Fanny’s ties to her family are tested as she struggles with – and confronts – her basest desires, as well as enemies on every front. A fair amount of the film’s depravity is suggested though, rather than plainly depicted, which seems to fit in with the film’s sensibilities but may disappoint the more, um, hardcore horror heads. Vivid imaginations could be disappointed by the realities of some storyline choices.
The film’s cast turn in universally fine performances – indeed, Charles Dance could have been born in the 1600s, and he and the eminently watchable Maxine Peake, on which the film basically hangs, convince as a dutiful couple of the era. As the mysterious Thomas Ashbury though, Freddie Fox particularly shines, managing to masterfully balance the playful, charming and dangerous aspects of his character: You can see why he could enthral both Rebecca and – maybe – Fanny.
Fanny Lye Deliver’d boasts meticulous period detail, from language to its specially-constructed barn setting, alongside an impressive, and accurate, amount of mud. Not only does the soundtrack work to conjure a haunting atmosphere, its classical composition, with returning themes, is both satisfying and impressive – Thomas Clay composed the whole thing himself and insisted on true-to-period instruments, as far as was possible.
The film unfolds at its own pace, which is sometimes perfect and at other times a little bogged down. It takes longer than is perhaps necessary for the background and motives of Thomas and Rebecca to be uncovered. The film’s narration is also invasive, and potentially unnecessary considering the film’s general preference for dubiousness. However, what’s described in the closing few moments potentially does justify its use throughout – this story may be even more intriguing, and tempts you to consider what sort of feminist firecracker film could be deliver’d as a sequel…
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★