British Indie director Thomas Clay returns to the screen following an 11-year absence with a film that’s steeped in atmosphere, wit, and audaciousness with a film that plays out in a breathlessly unpredictable fashion for much of its runtime.
Set in 1657 during Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan grip on England, the film follows a small family, where hard-working wife Fanny Lye (Maxine Peake) lives with her husband, ex-soldier and strict Puritan John (Charles Dance), and their young son Arthur (Zak Adams). Their restricted yet simple life gets thrown into a whirlwind with the arrival of a young man and woman, Thomas (Freddie Fox) and Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds). While initially simply seeking shelter, tensions soon begin to arise between the young couple’s more modern and radical views on love and religion and John’s own extreme views.
The tension that brews in the household really begins to heat up when it is revealed that this young more free-thinking couple may be on the run for partaking in orgies and preaching a new doctrine that calls for a re-thinking of the values of Christianity, leading to The High Sheriff of the Council of State (a scene-stealing Peter McDonald) closing in on the household. With all these elements at play, Fanny Lye Deliver’d ends up feeling like a melting pot of genres, running from handsome period drama to a psychosexual thriller, and even a home invasion horror.
As a result, this is a film that’s often hard to pin down in terms of where exactly it’s going to go next. Feeling like a blend of Barry Lyndon and Witchfinder General in both its visuals and highly dramatic tone, this is a film designed to keep you on the edge all the while staying focused entirely around John and Fanny’s small farm and the life-shattering few days that follow in the wake of Thomas and Rebecca’s arrival. What begins as a war of egos between two men with radically different views turns into an opportunity for Fanny to experience both a spiritual and sexual awakening, in which she can rise above John’s strict patriarchal rule. And that’s all before it once again turns on its head into something resembling a survival horror.
This modulation across its three prongs of Puritan horror gives the film three very distinct acts that seem very much fuelled by different purposes, but all flow together due to the overarching thread of Fanny’s personal revolution that is sparked by Thomas’s preaching but evolved into something else entirely her own. Her own journey does get a little lost in the shuffle as the warring egos and ideologies of the men in the house come to drive most of the drama, but there’s still a stirring sense of something brewing within Fanny that unleashes in a very satisfying manner as the violent third act unfolds in all its vengeful fury.
Much of why Fanny stays at the forefront of your mind comes from Peake’s calm and intelligent performance. While she may initially seem like the naive wife of a Puritan, deeper levels of her character slowly come to the forefront as she fights to stake her claim in this narrative which is largely driven by the belief systems of men, with Fanny coming to challenge both the ideologies set before her come the film’s end.
A delightfully odd concoction, there is a bravado sense of style to Clay’s return to the screen, one that proves to endlessly surprising and rather quite shocking in a number of key moments. Its story of radicalisation at a time when more subversive thinking was beginning to take hold under the grim time of Puritan England makes for a lively stage for both a battle of the sexes and the rise of someone learning to take control of their own definitions. It’s often a little farcical, dryly funny, visually kinetic for something so mistily secluded, and ultimately proves to be quite the intoxicating experience. Just be mindful of shrooms in your mead now.
Dir: Thomas Clay
Scr: Thomas Clay
Cast: Maxine Peake, Charles Dance, Freddie Fox, Tanya Reynolds, Peter McDonald, Zak Adams, Perry Fitzpatrick, Kenneth Collard
Prd: Philippe Bober, Robert Cannan, Joseph Lang, Michel Merkt, Zorana Piggott
DOP: Giorgos Arvanitis
Music: Thomas Clay
Run time: 112 mins
Fanny Lye Deliver’d played in Official Competition at the BFI London Film Festival, with a general release date to be confirmed.