Director Thomas Clay has made a name for himself as a maker of transgressive films, most notably with his debut The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, a profoundly unpleasant piece of work. After a little more than a decade of silence from Clay since his second feature Soi Cowboy, he’s returned with Fanny Lye Deliver’d: a genre-hopping period drama set a few years after the end of the English Civil War.
The film introduces the Puritan Lye family at their farm in Shropshire. The Lyes are husband and wife John and Fanny, played by Charles Dance and Maxine Peake respectively, and their young son Arthur, played by Zak Adams. It’s a humble existence by design, punctuated by Sunday church visits and former soldier John’s cruel discipline upon his wife and child when they dare to step out of line with his word, and make no mistake: in the Lye homestead, John Lye’s word is God.
The wounded solder’s patriarchal, God-fearing regime sets the illusion of tranquility in the English countryside, complete with docile farmyard animals. That calm is quickly disrupted by the arrival of Freddie Fox and Tanya Reynolds as Thomas and Rebecca to the Lye farm, under the guise of victims of a highwayman attack which has left them with nothing but the skin on their backs.
Despite a great number of reservations from John, the two are clothed and sheltered by the family, but after a visit from the local lawmen, it becomes apparent that the two strangers are not all that they seem, and the mere presence of Thomas and Rebecca in their home becomes a challenge to the fundamentalist Puritan way in which John Lye has run his home.
Fanny Lye is positioned as a pawn in a great game between John and Thomas, and although Peake gives a great performance as a woman beaten down by her scowling husband and his religious zealotry, she doesn’t really feel like a character with much agency until the latter stages of the film. It is of course interesting to see that journey take place, but for a large amount of the running time, Fanny Lye feels like an onlooker in her own story, even though she’s on screen for a significant amount of the film’s running time.
John Lye and Thomas’ battle of wills and spirit does make for an engaging, tense narrative, and watching Charles Dance play to type as the oppressing patriarch in a fight to protect his authority upon his wife and son against the attractive, progressive politics of the young upstart Thomas is a perverse delight. Likewise, Freddie Fox’s hypnotic performance as a man accused of blasphemies in Cromwell’s England who finds a likely target for his rhetoric in Fanny, is indicative of a talent which deserves and has deserved greater recognition in bigger projects.
The conflict throughout the film leads Fanny Lye Deliver’d through an intricately woven tale with more than a few hints of various genres: Westerns, home invasion thrillers and to an extent, horror creeps through the Shropshire farm – supposedly built especially for this film – up until its bloody crescendo. Clay’s decision to shoot on 35mm film gives it an authentic feel, but the whole thing, for all of the impressive work on screen, feels somewhat shabby. The decision to flit between genres leaves the film feeling inconsistent in tone, and throughout Fanny Lye Deliver’d there’s a narration from Reynolds’ character, which doesn’t do the story any favours beyond perhaps giving her more to do in the film beyond appearing in various stages of undress.
What was most frustrating was that, for a filmmaker known to push the envelope, Fanny Lye Deliver’d feels like the work of a director restrained. There’s rarely doubt of where the story will end up, and by keeping the character of Fanny sidelined for a lot of the film’s running time, the film ultimately feels like a story driven only by its male characters.
That said, it’s always a joy to see Peake on screen, especially when she’s given a script which is as full of lavish, fruity dialogue as this. Though her impact for much of the film may be small, her third act turn is mighty, and Peake’s performance leaves the film without any doubt: Fanny Lye is not only delivered, but triumphant.
Clay’s latest feature certainly has its merits, and to suggest that Fanny Lye Deliver’d is ineffective in what it sets out to do would be an untruth. It is a shame though that the film could have been so much more, but all things considered, to have a talent as original and radical as Thomas Clay working in British cinema is only ever a good thing. Hopefully he returns a lot sooner than he did for this film, at the very least.