Thomas Clay’s Fanny Lye Deliver’d was shot back in 2016 and when a film is a long time coming, it raises question marks. One such as this, with strong religious themes set in 17th century Shropshire, doesn’t necessarily have box office appeal written all over it. But here is an instance of something good being worth waiting for.
The Fanny Lye (Maxine Peake) of the title lives on remote farm with her husband, former soldier John (Charles Dance) and their young son Arthur (Zak Adams). In Cromwellian England, they’re a traditional Puritan family, with John firmly in charge. But the arrival of a pair of strangers, Thomas (Freddie Fox) and Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds) brings about a radical change. They arrive in mysterious circumstances and, while they’re given shelter on the farm, encourage Fanny to question the rules she’s lived by throughout her life. And when the truth about the young couple emerges, the consequences for Fanny and her family are dramatic and irreversible.
What comes across initially as a thriller with the added dimension of a historical period that’s seen rarely on the big screen actually owes more to another genre altogether. The remote border country, and the lawlessness that goes with it. Riders emerging out of the mist. It all puts you in mind of a western – a Puritan one, if you like – and the film’s director admits the genre was one of his main inspirations for the film. And it works unexpectedly well. Coupled with the small cast in a single location, it happily qualifies as a thriller as well, with a breath-catching tension that comes both from the narrative and the characters.
That it’s a dour film can’t be denied. There’s no relief from the harshness of the life on the farm – the mud, the physical grind – or from the events that befall the Lye family, especially when they encounter the local sheriff (a deliciously flamboyant but cold blooded Peter McDonald). But there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel and more than enough to keep you engrossed in the film. Clay and his team present us with cold, misty yet always beautiful cinematography in an unforgiving setting, together with a cast that represents the best in British acting, both new and established. Peake is, as ever, formidable: gentle and soft spoken initially but always with a hint of something stronger and more rebellious underneath.
It’s almost impossible to categorise Fanny Lye Deliver’d, but that’s another point in its favour. If it’s ever to fit into some kind of box, it’s more likely to belong in the one labelled “cult favourite”. And that should give it some longevity because this is a great example of how cinema can take us into another world and another time, while making us challenge our own beliefs.
Drama, Thriller, Historical | Cert: 18 | Vertigo Releasing | Ed Film Fest At Home from 24 June to 5 July 2020. Digital, 26 June 2020 | Dir. Thomas Clay | Maxine Peake, Charles Dance, Freddie Fox, Tanya Reynolds, Peter McDonald, Zak Adams.