Powered by a thrilling anarchist streak, writer-director Thomas Clay's stagy English Civil War drama is by turns frustrating and fascinating
Given the deep cultural and political rifts that have very publicly ravaged the UK since 2015, it’s rather strange that the English Civil War has received so little artistic attention as of late. Thomas Clay’s Fanny Lye Deliver’d sets out to address that issue, taking heavy inspiration from Witchfinder General but also mixing in elements of more recent 17th century chillers like A Field in England and The Witch. It’s a bold and frequently exciting experiment, with some unfortunate flaws that hold it back from its potential greatness.
The Fanny Lye of the title is a humble farmer, played by Maxine Peake, wife to John Lye (Charles Dance), a puritan Roundhead captain in the recently concluded civil war. They live a pious life with their sullen 12-year-old son, a life that is brought crashing down by the arrival of a young couple, Thomas and Rebecca (Freddie Fox and Tanya Reynolds), who fall on their doorstep bloody, bruised, and stark naked.
They spin a tale of bandits in the woods, though this is quite obviously a fiction, as much as Fanny and John are inclined to believe them. As the pair ingratiate themselves with the Lyes, they start to reveal their true purpose – prophets of a radical new philosophy, a sort of humanist proto-atheism, expressed through drink, drugs, and sex. They seek to free England from the yoke of the church, and though Fanny is open to their ideas, John is very much not. It’s an openly stagy premise, with a tiny cast and just one immaculately detailed set, but Clay mostly uses this as an advantage, delving deep into character and setting.
Fox and Reynolds are impressive in darker roles than they’re usually given, having to switch between charming and sinister on a dime, and though Peake and Dance can basically do roles like these (working woman achieving enlightenment for her, conflicted patriarch for him), they’re still compelling. Clay’s long, mobile takes really ground his characters in the world, using both the cast’s performances and the geography of the farm to show shifts in the balance of power.
It’s effective, efficient storytelling, though marred by the overly insistent score (composed by Clay himself), which often verges on self-parody, especially when matched with some of the self-consciously ‘60s-style shots. The music ends up upsetting the tonal balance, undoing a lot of very strong visual work that cleanly bridges the gap between knowing pastiche and sombre sincerity.
This unevenness really makes itself felt in the rather rushed finale with the introduction of the High Sherriff, a sadistic puritan inspector lifted straight out of the realms of comic-book villainy. The gory violence he brings feels of a piece with the rest of the film – all the sex and bloodletting is incredibly explicit throughout – but his campy moustache-twirling does not.
Scenes with the Sherriff are undeniably exciting, but they do seem like you’ve entered a different film, the authenticity and wars of ideas of the first two acts replaced by Tarantino-lite quippy action. Yet, as much as Fanny Lye Deliver’d frustrates, it also fascinates and thrills. Formally interesting historical movies are a rare thing, and the “sex-as-progressivism” ideals at play are refreshing in an ever more anodyne and chaste cinematic culture. An unabashed streak of anarchy runs through this film, stirring the blood despite its imperfections.
Fanny Lye Deliver'd is now available to rent on VOD platforms.Where to watch