Fanny Lye Deliver’d is most definitely a slow burner, unable to conform entirely to either folk horror or historical drama: you won’t forget this film in a hurry.
Set on an isolated Shropshire farm in in 1657, Fanny Lye Deliver’d follows the ‘deliverance’ of Fanny Lye (Maxine Peake), a puritan wife and mother, who eventually breaks free from the bonds of her oppressive marriage and embarks on a new life. After returning from church one Sunday with her husband and young son, Fanny is greeted by two strangers: Thomas and Rebecca, a young couple in need whom we later come to know are wanted on heresy charges and are being hunted by a ruthless, if pantomime-esque, sheriff (Peter McDonald) and his deputy (Perry Fitzpatrick) . A lot of violence and a weird sex scene later, Fanny leaves the farm, accompanied by young heretic Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds), and begins her knew life in which she becomes a feminist preacher. It’s a lot.
If this all sounds very action packed and thrilling, spoiler: it isn’t. At least for the first hour or so, things take a while to get going. From the outset, the film attempts to establish its concern with the discovery of ‘modern notions of personal, political and sexual freedom’ as embodied in the characters of Thomas and Rebecca, and, though these themes are undeniably present within the film, they are handled strangely. The idea of personal freedom is probably most overtly addressed in the ‘enlightening’ of Fanny by Rebecca and Thomas. Away from the restrictive gaze of her husband John (Charles Dance), who is literally tied up inside the farmhouse, Rebecca and Thomas attempt to instil in Fanny an understanding of the equality of men and women and her right to autonomy. A progressive acknowledgement of modern feminism; love it.
However, this championing of the feminist cause is overshadowed slightly by the weirdness of the other forms of ‘personal freedoms’ Thomas and Rebecca encourage. Things go from zero to a hundred really quickly and, before you know it, we’re in the bedroom, Rebecca is naked, and Thomas is encouraging Fanny to engage in sexual activity with the both of them in front of her husband and son. The weirdest part being when Fanny attempts to cover her son Arthur’s (Zak Adams) eyes, Thomas encourages Arthur to watch if he wishes, as it ‘his own choice to make’. This kid cannot be more than ten. Really not the championing of personal freedoms we’d hoped for.
In terms of political freedoms, we have the Sheriff and his deputy as representatives of the state’s tyranny. Flamboyantly dressed with an overly stylised gait, these guys would be better suited to your local pantomime, their presentation is somewhat distracting from their function as symbols of oppression and tyranny. The mystery of the child’s brutal murder is haunting, however, what could have been a very salient moment of the film is overshadowed by the exaggerated, almost Tarantino-esque killing of Thomas (his face completely explodes from a single gunshot, I mean, come on). Fanny and Rebecca (spoiler ahead) manage to kill off the Sheriff and his sidekick and so political freedom is symbolically achieved, but still, weirdly done.
Do we even need to address the sexual freedom thing? I think the seventeenth century, extra-marital threesome in front of a ten-year-old is quite controversial enough.
Having said all this, it’s not entirely bad. The film is studded with artful, clever moments that subtly highlight the jarring mentalities of the day. The erratic camera work, uncomfortable close ups, and isolated, non-descript location effectively emulate the vulnerability and disorientation of Fanny’s character. The language of possession used; ‘his spell enveloped her entire body’ firmly plant the viewer in a puritan mindset, viewing Thomas and Rebecca as an almost otherworldly force with great persuasive power (especially as Fanny abandons every belief she’s ever had in the space of three days) reminiscent of puritan ideas of witchcraft.
The initial reference to Thomas and Rebecca as ‘strangers’ and the folk tale-like quality of the narrative, again present them as something other than human, something to be feared. The presentation of John again aligns the viewer with the puritan mindset of the day. John disciplines his wife and is undoubtedly sexist, though given the seventeenth century setting im not sure this is to be unexpected. John is staunchly religious and when he is forced to go for water by Thomas in place of his wife, he falls three times on the way to the well as he has an injured leg. All seems very reminiscent of the biblical telling of Jesus falling three times as he carries the cross to Calvary. John is presented here as an almost martyred figure and the viewer feels sympathy for him, in spite of his misgivings. The manipulation of the viewers mindset is an illustration of the film’s potential, we experience the confusion of an evolving society within our own minds.
So, there’s some good, some bad, some just plain weird in Fanny Lye Deliver’d. If you do decide to give it a watch, it’s sure to make an impression.
Fanny Lye Deliver’d is now available to watch on digital and on demand.