What a bizarre, astonishing and infuriating film Fanny Lye Deliver’d truly is: part revisionist history, part liberal ode, part spaghetti western, part brutal nod to Michael Reeves’ classic Witchfinder General. I think I would have possibly enjoyed it more had I known what to expect, my experience somewhat confounded by insufficient prior knowledge: sometimes its wonderful going into a film blind, sometimes it works against you.
Really, Maxine Peake brought me here- a fine actress who has a no-nonsense, down to Earth aura about her, she exudes reality in pretty much anything I’ve seen her in. I figured this would be some kind of historical drama, and was pretty excited to see Peake in something like this, but really, I had no idea. She’s typically brilliant, by the way- one of this nations treasures.
So it’s 1657, and we’re in a wonderfully authentic-looking small farm in post-Civil War Shropshire, England: its dirty and damp and miserable-looking and strangely idyllic. Fanny Lye (Peake), an intelligent but suppressed woman is living the typical subservient life of a poor farmer’s wife, her marriage to Puritan ex-solder John Lye (Charles Dance) one in which she knows and accepts her place. Raise her son, tend the farm animals, prepare food, clean the home, all with deference to her judgemental husband. This place in the world, the Old World if you will, is challenged by two visitors to the farm, a young man and woman, Thomas (Freddie Fox) and Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds), who arrive naked, begging for food and shelter, claiming they have been robbed. Lye’s immediate impulse to turn them away is swayed by the young man Thomas’ claim to have served in the war, but his initial suspicions are ultimately realised, when the two turn out to be religious radicals with wild ideas about women being equal to men, and whose ridicule of the strict doctrines of the Church horrifies the righteous Lye as horrifically blasphemous.
This is the New World, perhaps a few centuries too early, yet suddenly arrived with sexual and moral freedoms that Fanny finds beguiling and exciting, but she has her own sense of right and wrong quite seperate from the hellfire and brimstone of her devout God-fearing husband. There is a feeling that this new era, and its challenging sensibilities, is stuck out of time, that it doesn’t belong (albeit I understand such frictions actually occurred at the time).
It is soon clear that Thomas and Rebecca are perhaps not as innocent as they might seem, when a clearly villainous High Sheriff (Peter McDonald) arrives at the farm with a twisted stooge henchman. Their eventual return in the final third of the film feels inevitable, and turns what seems a historical social fable into brutal folk-horror. It feels an awkward shift but nonetheless earned, finally closing in on its Witchfinder General ambitions, even if it ultimately falls short.
Its such a pity the film doesn’t realise its clear ambition. I think its undermined somewhat by being a little too literal, too much like… well, it almost felt like Thomas and Rebecca are too much of our world, too much of the present day in 17th Century England- the friction of the opposing world views is fascinating but…
Maybe it was Thomas’ pearly white, perfect teeth. Its such a shame when the rest of the film seems so convincing and dirty and real, so much so that you can almost taste and smell it, and yet one of the leads has a perfectly trimmed beard and blazing-white 21st Century teeth. I’d have been more convinced had his character turned out to have been a Time Traveller. Its possibly a stylistic choice, a nod to current tastes, but it feels incongruous and ultimately irritating.
Its such a shame because so much of the film is so great. Peake, in particular, is outstanding, her Fanny is so obviously intelligent and trapped by her established place in her world, and its wonderful to see her slowly becoming enlightened and freed by the radical ideas that the two young strangers bring to her, and there is a definite sexual charge and tension between Fanny and Thomas that almost feels like something from a sultry film noir, as damned and doomed as any noir tryst. Her final transformation is triumphant, Peake never less than convincing, but it just feels wrong, too much of the New World suddenly dawned.