There’s a feeling to Fanny Lye Deliver’d that surely it must be inspired by historical fact. That Fanny was a real person who went on to do something amazing, and this is her origin story. And of course the only reason we haven’t heard about her before is because she was a woman and women’s accomplishments are almost always deliberately forgotten, and now that you’ve finally stumbled across her tale, you’re just amazed by how she clawed her way out of the hellhole where she started, and doubly enraged at her erasure.
Maybe Fanny Lye lends this impression because it embodies a sense of social and cultural progress as a series of fits and starts, and still not yet fully achieved, which can bring an inevitable yet unexpected modern quality to a story set even centuries ago. As this one is. The year is 1657, and the setting is rural England during Oliver Cromwell’s puritanical, despotic reign. It’s close to a hellhole for Fanny (a stupendous Maxine Peake: Gwen, Peterloo), seemingly little more than a drudge resigned to serving her much older husband, John (Charles Dance: Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Johnny English Strikes Again), who is such a domineering jerk that he encourages their young son, Arthur (Zak Adams), maybe nine or 10 years old, to disrespect her. Because no man allows a woman to get the better of him, not even if that man is a boy and that woman is his mother.
The heaviness of portent hangs over writer-director Thomas Clay’s introduction of Fanny: an ominous mist that envelopes the Lye farmhouse; a knowing weariness in the voice of the at-this-point unknown female narrator (it’s not Fanny) who has foreknowledge of what is to come; the peculiar arrival of a pair of strangers, Thomas (Freddie Fox: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Victor Frankenstein) and Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds: Emma.), in need of aid. Outsiders are mysterious in a place like mid-17th-century Shropshire, and this young couple are about to upset the Lye household, and Fanny in particular, in ways that are decidedly dangerous in more ways than one.
Before we — and the Lyes — even realize what has happened, Clay has shifted cinematic gears from historical chamber drama to period horror. This is horror of a deliciously audacious nature, limited in physical scale — the action barely leaves the surroundings of the Lye farmhouse — yet ambitious in emotional scope. For the monstrousness here isn’t of a supernatural bent, either potentially or actually; this ain’t another The Witch. The mantle of monstrousness, in fact, moves around with the burgeoning understanding of the possibilities before her that Fanny’s experience here brings. She has been suffering from a sort of proto–feminine mystique, that nameless, amorphous dissatisfaction with the world and her place in it that Betty Friedan pegged to (white middle-class suburban) women in postwar America but which has certainly afflicted women since men decided they would be the ones to make the rules. And it is starting to dawn on her that she is missing out on life.
Fanny Lye plays with tropes of the home-invasion subgenre, but it’s more a psychological invasion. A spiritual invasion. For it was during Cromwell’s reign that notions of freethought — of personal freedom of mind and body, and of a morality not handed down by an inscrutable deity and his tyrannical priests — began to take hold. And the Lyes’ visitor Thomas — handsome, bold, and charismatic — is “a prophet” of these wild new concepts, Rebecca informs Fanny with the gusto such transgression deserves. His “preaching” on free love, atheism, and humanism sounds nearly as radical and as fresh today as it would have 400 years ago. Alas.
And oh, he’s got a critique of capitalism, too.
Fanny’s world, which initially looks so archaic to us, is not so different from our own, we come to see. As Fanny’s eyes are opened to see a light beyond the authoritarian religious zeal with which her husband rules her — which is but a shadow of larger social forces at work — we are reminded of the cruelty and oppression that power and piety, especially in combination, have never truly given up. There is a satisfying catharsis in Fanny’s awakening to her repression, and her deliverance from it, and perhaps some personal encouragement to be found in her “small act of rebellion” that leads to bigger ones. But just as the film never gives in to salaciousness when it might have, it also does not allow us any easy sense of superiority. We haven’t progressed anywhere near as much from Fanny’s time as we’d like to imagine.
first viewed during the 63rd BFI London Film Festival