Dir: Thomas Clay. Starring: Maxine Peake, Charles Dance, Freddie Fox, Tanya Reynolds, Peter McDonald. 18 cert, 110 mins.
“The present state of the old world... is running up like parchment in the fire,” wrote Gerrard Winstanley, who led the proto-anarchist group the Diggers, in 1649. The English Civil War had rattled the country’s old bones. In its aftermath, radical thought took root. Dissenting groups sprung up in all manner of places. Thomas Clay’s Fanny Lye Deliver’d, set a decade later, sees this fervour descend on a Shropshire farm in a fit of sex and violence. It’s a film as incendiary and chaotic as the period that inspired it.
John Lye (Charles Dance) plays the tyrant at home, wielding the Bible in one hand and a cane in the other. His young son, Arthur (Zak Adams), has developed a kind of parental Stockholm Syndrome: he idolises his father even as he suffers his beatings. Fanny (Maxine Peake), meanwhile, quietly tucks dissatisfaction away underneath her stiff wool skirts. Their world is flung suddenly out of orbit by the arrival of Thomas (Freddie Fox) and Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds) – naked, bruised, and with a tragic story of a roadside robbery.
When the High Sheriff (Peter McDonald, moustachioed and villainous) turns up in search of debauchers and blasphemers, it becomes clear Thomas and Rebecca are not who they claim to be. A stand-off eases into slow seduction. Fanny can see utopia reflected in Thomas’s promises of sexual and moral freedom but, after the mask slips, will she only find exploitation under a different guise?
Clay faced an uphill battle with Fanny Lye Deliver’d. Flooding threatened to destroy the set and, by the time the film reached post-production, funding had dried up. But the director wasn’t ready to compromise his vision – he even volunteered to write the score, which signals every dramatic turn with a cavalcade of horns. But here lies the root of the film’s problems: Clay’s music is thudding and portentous, which feels excessive when the film is already full of bleak vistas of fields, muddied and shrouded in mist.
At every opportunity, the audience is reminded that Fanny’s world is insular and Thomas’s arrival presents a threat to that. Rebecca narrates the film, but she spends most of it hyping us up for the event that “delivered Fanny Lye from one life into the next”. At times, she sounds more like a ringmaster than a storyteller. For a film with such reverence for the folk horror films of the Seventies, namely Witchfinder General, it deals in extremes without ever truly managing to provoke.
Yet there’s nuance to be found within the film’s central performances. Dance carries John’s bitterness on his elegantly wizened brow; Peake allows Fanny’s inquisitive mind to come out in small gestures and covert smiles; and Fox gives Thomas a flash of predatory charisma. Reynolds, meanwhile, plays Rebecca as the quiet but attentive disciple.
The four of them engage in a constant push-and-pull of power and ideas, as if they were battling for their country’s own future. Fanny Lye Deliver’d bristles with the promise brought on by a new era, even if its approach feels busy and overworked.
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