If there was a word that could describe what makes director Thomas Clay’s Fanny Lye Deliver’d work on so many levels, unpredictable would come to mind. It is a fair description of a drama available to see on Curzon Home Cinema guided by its small but convincing ensemble of actors representing several generations of actors, including Charles Dance, Maxine Peake, Freddie Fox and Tanya Reynolds.
Set in Shropshire in 1657, Oliver Cromwell governs England with an iron-fist where the discovery of debauchery and heresy can lead to capital punishment for those brave enough to deliver such behaviour. It is that sort of behaviour committed by a young couple (Fox and Reynolds) that results in them fleeing their prior area and eventually coming across an isolated home inhabited by John Lye (Dance), a hulking and deeply religious patriarch of a family consisting of himself, his wife Fanny (Peake) and their young son.
Though starting on awkward territory upon discovery from breaking in to steal clothes to cover their initial nudity, Lye reluctantly allows the couple into his home for one night upon listening to the story they present, during which the couple see enough in him for the tyrant he is. As the reasons for the couple’s predicament becomes clearer, events transpire which offer Fanny a chance at either continuing her browbeaten existence or following their lead into breaking outside of conformity and showing what she could be.
The success of Fanny Lye Deliver’d stems from two things, the first being its unique ability to move brazenly from one bit of storytelling into something different, transforming what starts as a depiction of patriarchal society in the 17th century.
It becomes a home invasion storyline before waltzing into a darkly comic psychological erotica, and then leads up to a vicious third act with a fair share of bloody detail that in some instance, literally comes out from nowhere.
The third act is particular for showing not just how allegiances are changed at the drop of a hat but the sudden bouts of grim occurrence which make us believe anything is possible in the closing minutes, good or bad.
Its other strength comes from its set of characters who appear not as one-dimensional as their initial statuses lead us to believe.
Notable is the titular character played in atypical naturalistic style by the versatile Peake whose recent controversial Independent interview that somehow resulted in the sacking of frontbench Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey should not be seen as a distraction to what a marvellous film actress she can be, this sitting alongside Funny Cow to cement that.
Fanny’s journey is one of discovery and awakening, a characterisation that sees the meek individual accepting her husband’s religion-fuelled punishment towards her and their son for playful activity to whom we see her for at the end, but not before viewing the rollercoaster behaviour she undergoes on occasion.
Dance is very engaging to watch as the domineering patriarch whose status is evident but also gradually chopped down as the visitors quickly assert their dominance over him. The comparisons with Haneke’s Funny Games could be understood given the leg injury he endures, but in this case, it is the homeowner who is the unsympathetic type, although, as we discover, much to the film’s genius, it is not consistent.
Subversion is an adept contributor as in one scene where John becomes the victim of the treatment he had dished out earlier, a display of what happens when the power is taken from the powerful and those in possession are no longer possessed. The director makes it clear nothing is taken for granted.
Filmed back in 2016 but worth the wait, when it comes to what could make the list for the top films of the year, it will take something most impressive to knock this out. The best advice for anyone wanting to seek this out; expect the unexpected.
OUT OF FOURS STARS: ***1/2