British filmmaker Thomas Clay made an impression on the scene back in the noughties with two controversial films that had began to establish him as a rising star to pay attention to. After strangely going off the radar ever since, he’s returned to the director’s chair with period drama Fanny Lye Deliver’d. Set on an isolated Shropshire farm shortly after the English Civil War, the plot centres around the bleak lives of Fanny (Maxine Peake), her abusive husband John (Charles Dance) and their son Arthur. When young couple Thomas (Freddie Fox) and Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds) arrive unannounced to seek shelter in their barn one night, the Lye’s strict puritan lifestyle is challenge by radical new ideas.
With a narrative that takes place in just one location with only a handful of key characters, Clay presents an intensely intimate story on 35mm film, but its weighty themes are microcosmic of the country at that time. The Lyes are the conservative ‘ranters’, the strangers are the liberal ‘levellers’, and their stark contrast in opinions on sex and religion becomes the catalyst for the fascinating conflict that ensues. Once you get past the hard of hearing accents delivered in an old-timey style, the dialogue is as savage as the violence that unfolds when the opposing sides collide.
The stripped back nature of the piece allows for almost theatrical turns from the actors, and the central quartet are terrific in their roles. Charles Dance is so often cast as the straightforward bureaucratic bad guy so it’s satisfying to see him give a more complex portrayal as the mean-spirited patriarch of the Lye household. His old school vs new school clashes with adversary Thomas are terrific, and Fox displays a magnetic menace that he seems to bring to all of his work. In her film debut, Tanya Reynolds is also an exciting screen presence, bringing a dash of dark humour and providing narration that gives pivotal context to what is otherwise quite a minimalistic approach to storytelling. As strong as the support from those around her, the titular performance from Maxine Peake is the black heart and soul of the film. Her physical and mental turmoil is the driving force of the fable, and the expressive depiction of Fanny’s awakening to a new world view is brilliantly realised.
Fanny Lye Deliver’d makes for challenging yet utterly compelling viewing, like Haneke’s Funny Games reimagined in 17th century England. Clay does so much with so little, turning period drama into period trauma with a folk-horror twist. After a long hiatus from cinema, he has deliver’d.