BFI LFF 2019: Fanny Lye Deliver’d (2019)

Fanny Lye Deliver’d by Thomas Clay is a provocative, transgressive story of political, religious and sexual liberation in Puritan times showcasing a powerful performance by Maxine Peake.

Morality Play

by Alexa Dalby

Fanny Lye Deliver’d

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

It’s post-Civil War, Puritan England in 1657. Post-English Revolution, the country is still riven with political and religious ferment. Popular movements of dissenters who are rebelling against the oppression of the new republic scandalise ordinary folk with their presumed licentiousness.

The film starts as a naked couple flee though the muddy fields and desperately seek refuge on an isolated Shropshire farm. They are discovered hiding when the God-fearing family returns from church. Charismatic Thomas (Freddie Fox) and emancipated Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds in her film debut) claim to have been beaten and robbed of all their possessions on the road but they are not, it transpires, what they claimed to be.

Maxine Peake is matronly Fanny Lye, the down-trodden wife of John Lye (Charles Dance), a former captain in Cromwell’s army, now the owner of this farm. Lye is a religious, misogynistic, bullying martinet typical of the times: he teaches their obedient young son Arthur (Zak Adams) that, as a man, he must never let a woman get the better of him. In a layered performance, Peake, though outwardly submissive, subtly through glances and almost imperceptible physical movements hints that there may be more beneath the surface of her sober garb than meets the eye.

Their Christian duty compels the Lyes to take the couple in and care for them. Soon they are helping around the farm. But the sudden arrival of an unexpected visitor forces Thomas and Rebecca to reveal who they really are. The action they take sets in motion a chain of events and ideas that turn the narrow, confined world of the family upside down: there’s blasphemy, hallucinogenic drugs, sex and extreme violence. The results are beyond the imagining of any of them. As Rebecca warns us in her voiceover at the beginning, Fanny’s life is changed forever. Director/screenwriter Thomas Clay describes it as a ‘Puritan Western’.

It’s a female liberation story that chimes with that of abolitionist activist Harriet Tubman in Harriet, another film premiering at the BFI London Film Festival. Fanny and Harriet are both women who find untappd resources of strength within themselves that they did not know they had, who transcend the conventional roles society assigned to them and find a new direction in their lives that inspires others.

Another thing makes Fanny Lye Deliver’d so fascinating is its detailed, authentic recreation of the period – its look, language and manners. Great pains has been taken to do so: the farmhouse was built using the traditional materials of wattle and daub, beams and thatch and the atmospheric music is played on the instruments of the time. The end credits reveal what happened next and the tune that plays over them confirms how subversive that outcome was. It’s a film to be savoured.

Fanny Lye Deliver’d had its World Premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on 10 and 11 October 2019. Don’t miss it when it’s released in cinemas.

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