Fanny Lye

Fanny Lye Deliver’d (2019)

Fanny Lye Deliver’d first published by

Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013) was set during the English Civil War, and the field of its title yielded a crop of eccentric notions about the national identity at the country’s contested margins. The events of Fanny Lye Deliver’d, written, directed and scored by Thomas Clay (Soi Cowboy, 2008),similarly unfold in a field of England – in Shropshire, to be more precise – and although it is expressly set in 1657, in the aftermath of the Civil War, it still reenacts a continuing internecine struggle of ideas (about religion, freedom and sex) for the fertile rebirth of a nation.

In a Tudor farmstead on this field live the Lyes – war-wounded veteran Roundhead Captain John (Charles Dance), his wife Fanny (Maxine Peake), and their young son Arthur (Zak Adams). John is both stern patriarch and devout Puritan, maintaining his family under the pious fear of God, and not sparing them the rod for any perceived transgression. He purchased Fanny along with the property, and treats her as an inferior and a chattel. When we first see Fanny, she is literally scooping out shit in the outhouse at night, as a mark of her lowly station. She is always working, but does not complain, ever fearful of her domineering husband. Having lived through all the horrors of war, she has had things much worse, and has learnt simply to endure.

Things are about to change, and Fanny is soon to be delivered from her current circumstances. We know this, because a voiceover tells us so at the beginning of the film – a voice which, at a time where women like Fanny are rarely heard, is distinctly female, heralding a gendered conflict in the dynamics of the story. Fanny Lye Deliver’d may appear to be taking place in what is very much a world of men, but its title, and even its narration, belong to women. The change foretold has already started.

The narrator is Rebecca Henshaw (newcomer Tanya Reynolds), who arrives with her Ranter companion Thomas Ashbury (Freddie Fox) at Black Hill Farm while the Lyes are away at church. On the run, Rebecca and Thomas are stark naked – an incongruous sight in these puritanical times – and like a new Adam and Eve, their nudity is an ambiguous signifier, suggestive on the one hand of innocence and vulnerability, and on the other of sexual licentiousness. After seeking refuge in the house and stealing some clothes, they throw themselves on the mercy of their hosts, the silver-tongued Thomas explaining to John that he and his wife were heading to Bristol to get a boat to the New World when they were waylaid by cruel highwaymen. 

Thomas and Rebecca are not in fact married, and their story is a fiction – a ‘lye’ – but it is nonetheless built on kernels of truth. They may not really have been robbed, but they are nonetheless fugitives from ruthlessly vicious pursuers (Peter McDonald, Perry Fitzpatrick), and whether they were really emigrating to America or not, they bring to this little microcosm of England their own new world of unorthodox ideas and revolutionary heresies which threaten to tear John’s house apart. Meanwhile even more dangerous forces circle outside, embodying official authority while exposing its hypocrisy. At stake in these increasingly tense clashes are the life and future of Fanny, a woman who until this point has lacked any agency or voice – but her moment may finally have come.

Fanny Lye Deliver’d confines itself almost entirely to the farmhouse and its environs, with a constant mist adding to the sense of claustrophobia. At its heart this is a chamber piece, in which contradictory ideologies (spiritual, political, personal) collide in aggressive dialectic – and eventually in violent action. Yet in this bounded setting (built from the ground up with traditional materials and techniques for the production), Clay merges the religious opportunism and charlatanism of Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968) and the sexual repression of Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), while positioning his film as both melodramatic thriller and western avant la lettre. For in all this mud and misery, the groundwork can be discerned for a different future, when all the issues (socialist principles, women’s liberation, spiritual pluralism) seeded in the soil of Black Hill Farm have come to full bloom, without ever quite resolving themselves, in our own present. 

Clay’s Newhaven-set feature debut The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael (2005) climaxed in an outrage of home invasion, rape and murder, the horrors of which reflected the Coalition invasion of Iraq that could be seen and heard playing out on televisions in the background. Fanny Le Deliver’d comes with a similar ending, and similarly uses its small-scale drama to deliver a bigger message about movements and changes in the world beyond its immediate field (in England) of vision.

Summary: Thomas Clay’s third feature offers an English history of patriarchy, hypocrisy and oppression – and the first fruits of feminine resistance

Anton Bitel