There’s something inherently chilling about films depicting the English Civil Wars and their immediate aftermath. Even by the tumultuous history of this sceptred isle, it was a period of upheaval and violence like no other. Watching Fanny Lye Deliver’d, the first feature in 12 years from maverick filmmaker Thomas Clay, is to feel the potential for bloodshed lurking at the edges of every frame like Lovecraft‘s implacable Cthulhu gods. This slow-burn folk horror is as taut and keening as a violin string one turn of a tuning key from snapping, although its determined idiosyncrasy will be a repellant to many.
Fanny Lye (Maxine Peake) is a dutiful wife and mother living on a Shropshire farm towards the end of the interregnum period. Her strict puritan life is shattered by the sudden arrival of two naked strangers, Thomas and Rebecca (Freddie Fox and Tanya Reynolds). They claim to have been robbed and stripped of even the clothes on their backs. Fanny’s husband Captain John (Charles Dance) is moved to help them when Thomas reveals he was a fellow Roundhead during the War. Suspicions are raised when the couple is reluctant to take up John’s offering of getting the local constable involved, and it isn’t long before the authorities turn up at the Lye’s door looking for them.
Thomas Clay has used the trappings of classic genre film to sculpt something very much his own. While the central themes – religious fundamentalism, political upheaval and female empowerment – are similar to those in Robert Eggers‘ The Witch, the horrors Fanny endures are entirely corporeal. This brings the tone closer to the bleak, soured-mescaline acidity of Michael Reeves‘ Witchfinder General. It also helps that Clay has some reliable resources on which to draw. These include actors of the calibre of Peake, Dance and Fox, and, the real coup, cinematographer Giorgos Arvanitis, known for his career-long associations with Theo Angelopoulos and Catherine Breillat.
It’s the film’s look that instantly impresses. Unusually for depictions of the period, the fine 35mm stock initially gives a sense of a pastoral idyll as the Lye’s conduct their god-fearing business under crisp azure skies. Clay’s message seems to be that ignorance is bliss, even when that ignorance is maintained by the good captain’s whip. Once Fanny begins to open her eyes under the influence of the political and spiritual agitations of the newcomers, the colour palette becomes increasingly more muted and murky, suggesting that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The slow, inquisitive camera picks up on every subtle shift.
Peake plays her role accordingly, with infinitesimal control. She almost gives the impression that Fanny’s sinking into the background of her own story early on as the more overtly charismatic characters begin to duel for supremacy. The actor seems to have been cornering the market in put-upon mothers in period dramas recently (see Peterloo and Gwen), yet Fanny is eventually revealed to be as rich and complex a character as Peake’s recent gender-swapped Hamlet, one who has made the story entirely her own by the end. She’s given able support by Dance, whose natural stentorian air lends itself naturally to the puritan strand of domineering masculinity, Fox’s Ranting Pied Piper and Reynold’s flirtatious proto-feminist (and possibly unreliable narrator).
Where the film is likely to lose many is in Clay’s approach of dribbling the potent genre elements slowly into an arthouse brew. Fanny Lye Deliver’d, like its eponymous heroine, takes a long time to emerge from its chrysalis and beat its bloody wings. A trimmer 90 minutes would have made it a snapping, snarling companion to Reeves’ counter-cultural classic. It would also, however, have lost the shifting interplay between the characters which lead to tidal fluctuations in audience sympathies and a giddy feeling of being wrong-footed. It’s even possible that the final switch to a more conventional revenge narrative is actually a retrograde move, as stirring as it is. The sole glaring misstep is the blaring score. Although it gains authenticity points for using period-accurate instruments, it’s often honkingly intrusive for a story that’s essentially a relatively muted chamber piece. The characterisation and the storytelling are more than strong enough without the music screaming its intentions.
In the years since Clay’s last film, 2008’s Soi Cowboy, the likes of Peter Strickland and Ben Wheatley have appeared and flourished – fiercely independent spirits who can mould the tropes of cinema past into new and thrilling shapes. Wheatley himself also found Olde Wyrd Englande and psychedelic horror to be accommodating bedfellows in A Field in England. Clay has slotted nicely back into such excellent company. While Fanny Lye Deliver’d occasionally wears the patience, it’s a strange, bold and often beautiful film that is the impressive sum of many strong parts.
Available on demand from Fri 26 Jun 2020 on iTunes, Amazon, Sky, Virgin, Google, Rakuten, BT, Playstation, Microsoft, BFI Player and Voila