Thanks to indie auteur darlings like Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) and Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) folk horror is enjoying a moment out of the shadows and, at least in the case of Midsommar, into the harsh glare of a malevolent sun. Although there is no spell-casting or Satan-worshipping in Fanny Lye Deliver’d, it owes a great debt to the genre with its sex and sin in the countryside of Ye Olde England, reminiscent of classics like Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man.
But, as enjoyable as the film’s progression toward its inevitably bloody climax is, by crafting a feminist revisionist folk horror that also borrows from spaghetti Westerns and the home invasion film, Fanny Lye ends up feeling rather crowded with its own influences. Patched together from familiar pieces, it’s audacious yet lacks much of a lasting impression.
Shropshire, England, 1657. The English Civil War is over, King Charles I has been executed, and Oliver Cromwell rules the nation as Lord Protector, having installed Puritanism as the new religion of the state. But fear not, as Clay rather obviously signals by opening the film with a close-up of the bottom of a latrine, this isn’t the dusty historical drama that the prologue of scrolling text suggests. Fanny (the ever-brilliant Maxine Peake) is a meek, subservient wife to devout Puritan John Lye (another menacing performance from Charles Dance), and a loving mother to their young son.
Both tyrannical and literally puritanical, Thomas whips Fanny and their son for indulging in ungodly behaviors. She’s not even permitted to touch the family bible to avoid corrupting it with her sinful female touch. One Sunday morning the family ride off for church and, as revealed by the camera panning around the farm in a slow, stuttering move, their simple life is upended by two naked strangers darting out of the woods and seeking shelter.
Shooting on 35mm, writer and director Thomas Clay originally envisioned the film taking place in the depths of winter, but autumn is a more than worthy substitute. Bathed in low, golden sunlight and shrouded in mist, there’s a bite to the weather that suggests change; an old way of life dying. Latrine aside, the Lyes’ secluded farmhouse amidst rolling hills is the pinnacle of idealized rural England, ready and waiting to be ruptured by Thomas (Freddie Fox) and Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds), the young couple who claim to have been stripped and robbed. But, of course, as John suspects, they’re not the unfortunate travelers they seem to be.
Initially shocking her with their progressive ideas about an alternative religion in which women and men are equal and unconstrained by marriage, the pair begin to chip away at Fanny’s repressed sexual desire. Soon the foppish but sinister local sheriff comes knocking, looking for two heretics on the run, and a power struggle between and within the two couples begins.
Like the Puritans in Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Fanny and family speak in authentic seventeenth-century dialogue that could easily become irrevocably silly in the wrong hands. Yet Maxine Peake brings honesty to Fanny that cuts through all the “thees” and “thous”, making her conflicting attraction and repulsion towards the strangers believable, and the stirrings of rebellion against her abusive husband genuinely impactful.
The other performances are much broader, but Fox makes a convincingly charismatic religious leader, while Reynolds proves very watchable as her own unquestioning devotion to her lover begins to waver. Clay often keeps the camera close on Fanny herself, capturing her subtle performance in detail, while also using expansive wide shots and slow zooms of the landscape around the farm to both establish the arena where the film’s violent conclusion will occur and evoke seventies’ folk horror classics.
Sadly hampered by a rather unsatisfactory and confusing ending, at least to anyone not familiar with the different factions of Christianity in seventeenth-century England, the film doesn’t quite manage to fashion all of its elements into a coherent whole. But although it’s ultimately an exercise in style over substance, Maxine Peake is so compelling she just about manages to transcend the rather thin writing. The strength of her performance ensures that Fanny Lye Deliver’d is an entertaining if an inconsequential attempt at a genre homage.
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