LFF 2019: Fanny Lye Deliver'd Review
Thomas Clay’s third feature has not had an easy road to the screen. Shot in 2016, the film was plagued from the very beginning with the specially built house subjected to flooding, weather conditions making filming very difficult and then a turbulent three year post production period as Clay and producers struggled to find funding to finish the film. Still, Fanny Lye Deliver'd finally arrived in the Official Competition at London Film Festival 2019, and brings with it a truly original period-come-Western about gender politics, religion and extremism, all set just in 1657 in Shropshire.
For Maxine Peake’s Fanny Lye, she is between a rock and a hard place. Her husband John (Charles Dance) reads like a ultra-Christian Trump supporter and new-age interloper Thomas Ashbury (Freddie Fox) is reminiscent of that liberal friend you have that just loves the sound of their own voice when letting you know they’ve realised that religion is bad, actually. Between them, it’s difficult to take a side - which seems like the point.
After years of being downtrodden by husband John (an ex-Civil War Puritan soldier whose absolute favourite book is, you guessed it, The Bible), Fanny has her eyes opened to a new way of life when two young atheist types seek shelter on their farm. Thomas and Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds) befriend Fanny and John for a short while when John graciously allows them to spend the night, until the reality of their situation is revealed. Cue a battle for power, graphic sex scenes and a monumental bloodbath.
Fanny, at first, leans towards Thomas’ sly advances as he feels like a breath of fresh air from her abusive husband, yet Thomas’ constant self-congratulation regarding gender equality becomes ever more grating. The further through the film we get, the more it becomes apparent that it is simply one extremist despot replacing another in Fanny’s life. At times, the film is reminiscent of a home invasion horror film, Thomas and Rebecca representing the outsiders who storm the family home, upsetting the natural order of the Lye’s life.
The film is at its best when Fanny and Rebecca are allowed to share scenes alone, something that happens far too infrequently. That’s not to say Dance as John and Fox as Thomas don’t also give strong performances, but it is Peake and Reynolds that keep the script from becoming too repetitive and predictable (even though, at times, it still is). The film also seems to come together better when it is not taking itself too seriously - the extra-villainous High Sheriff for the Council of State (Peter McDonald), for example, helps to propel the film into a space where the audience can have a little fun with it. It is, after all, quite an amusing tale aside from all the killings.
Though the Puritan clothing and the thatched cottage farm-house might say otherwise, Fanny Lye Deliver’d is first and foremost a Western. From the extreme close-ups that cut between characters eyes in tense situations to the narrative which focuses on revenge and redemption. The camera is doing a lot of the heavy lifting here - cinematographer Giorgos Arvanitis favours these incredible long zoom shots, which take their time positing the characters amongst vast rural landscapes. Similarly to the backdrop of the American West, the Lye’s farm-house is an isolated structure and when visitors come over the horizon in the distance, there is a real sense of threat to the home and family.
Yet, to describe Fanny Lye as only a Western is selling short it’s unique selling point. Clay manages to mould a cult-horror period piece with Western ideals into a folk fairytale, a myth to be passed down through generations. This mashup of genre tropes doesn’t always work - Fanny Lye often feels incredibly laboured with metaphors and drawn out sequences, and the narrative feels somewhat stretched out to fit the almost two hour runtime. There may be moments when viewers will switch off, frustrated by the slow burn of the first hour and the constant monologing from it’s male characters, but if one can make it through then the final act reward is most definitely worth it.