Fanny Lye Deliver’d is a quasi-Western set just after the English Civil War, circa 1657, in a period of moral and sexual liberation, as well as barbaric violence.
The film is localised entirely at a Shropshire farmhouse, where patriarch and military veteran John Lye (Charles Dance) rules with authoritarian fear. His subservient wife, Fanny Lye (Maxine Peake), dutifully looks after the house and raises their pre-teen son Arthur until two intruders shatter their insular existence.
At first, the intruders Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds) and Thomas (Freddie Fox) are discovered by the family naked and bruised, humbly begging for assistance. They have allegedly been the victims of a robbery. From the outset, though, Rebecca narrates events in the past tense, indicating they are in control and not as vulnerable as they seem.
Concurrently, Rebecca and Thomas infiltrate the family dynamic, gradually introducing radical ideas of individual freedom into this puritanical home. However, on their trail is the High Sheriff, hunting a pair of “licentious heretics” whose footprints lead to the household. At this juncture, the film pivots sharply away from a simple home invasion thriller film to a revenge horror, with each character’s moral ambiguity throwing everything into disarray.
Shot in gorgeously grainy 35mm, the film artfully conveys the subtle changes in perception that each character undergoes. On the one hand, Maxine Peake as Fanny eschews wide-eyed naivete with an ice-cold glare as the once stultified mother instils her own sense of justice.
Even camera techniques become more fluid when the Lye family are captive to the intruders. For example, scenic wide shots are replaced with twisting long-takes, and whip pans capture the verbose monologues of Thomas, who believes individuals possess the power of God within themselves and can act accordingly.
The music, too, is particularly boisterous and lively, creating a heightened sense of drama and suspense. What springs to mind are the rich sounds of Ennio Morricone in a Sergio Leone film that add an exhilarating dimension to events. However, the horn instruments burst out with such evocative passion at times, giving away the narrative twist before it is revealed. Noteworthy is that director Thomas Clay wrote the score too, and although he is immensely talented in both fields, perhaps he could have used some restraint to allow the viewer to figure things out. Nevertheless, it would make for an excellent soundtrack to go back and listen to as it lingers long after the film has finished.
Fanny Lye Deliver’d is utterly hypnotic as oppressive patriarchy is usurped through cathartic violence. The production itself spent up to three years in cinematic purgatory, but Thomas Clay’s unique vision is fully realised in all its blood-soaked and muddy beauty.
The local accent in Shropshire and eastern Powys of the time was not recognisably “Welsh” or “West Midlands” in the way that might be expected today.