1657. Fanny Lye (Maxine Peake) is living a downtrodden life on an isolated Shropshire farm with her devout and strict husband John (Charles Dance) and their son Arthur (Zak Adams). When they discover Thomas and Rebecca (Freddie Fox and Tanya Reynolds) have broken into their barn while on the run from bandits, the young couple’s very different philosophy opens up new possibilities for Fanny.
The home invasion film is a well established form in horror cinema. Fanny Lye Deliver’d may not exactly be a horror film, but it shares more than a few traits of the genre, and the film’s structure follows almost to the letter that of a home invasion film. The status quo of the characters lives is set up; an incoming force disrupts it, and is revealed to be to some degree malevolent; one character is either seduced or pretends to be in order to try and neutralise the threat and there is escalating confrontation throughout. The third act here adds another wrinkle, but one which only serves to bring the film ever closer to its exploitation and horror influences.
The difference here is that, for much of the first two acts, the confrontation between John and Thomas is philosophical, driven by dialogue that largely feels authentic to the time. Things turn violent only in moments that each feels it necessary. John is an older man, set in his ways and bound to his belief in and literal interpretation of the Bible while the much younger Thomas describes himself as a Libertine, looking to find the God within and finding it in largely physical fulfilment, even when that means ‘sinful’ conduct. Ultimately, writer/director Thomas Clay finds both philosophies wanting, and in this way he lightly subverts his influences. There is no easily defined good and bad here. Most home invasion films, even if the moral lines between its characters are fuzzy, pick sides. Clay avoids this, Thomas and John are both men of their time, meaning neither is admirable by modern standards. Neither is above violence or coercion to get what they want and the film endorses neither of their views.
So far I have almost exclusively discussed the men in the film. While Maxine Peake is the title character and hers is the sole image on the film’s poster, her role is quiet and somewhat passive for much of the running time, but this is not to say that she isn’t the central figure, nor that she doesn’t deliver another commanding performance. I suspect that Fanny and Rebecca are often slightly to the side of their men because Clay is reflecting how society saw women at the time his film is set but while the men bluster and invoke their God concepts, be they inward or outward looking, Peake is delivering a nuanced performance, steely even in its quietest moments, as Fanny listens and reacts. The way she is able to silently suggest things—an early awareness of how Thomas is looking at her and the growing conflict she feels from that being just one example—often renders Rebecca’s narration somewhat redundant, or it would if Tanya Reynolds weren’t also excellent. The narration sometimes feels as though it is simply saying out loud things the film could be showing us through its performances, but the intent is more to put a spotlight on how Rebecca, with some distance from them, felt about the unfolding events. This is useful because it would be easy to reduce her character to Thomas’ pawn; a naive girl seduced by his philosophy. The voiceover gives her a life beyond the events on screen and allows her to reclaim some identity beyond what we actually see, as does Reynolds’ vibrant performance.
While much of it is talk driven, the film eventually veers closer to exploitation territory, with scenes of sex and violence that clear up any question of why this got an 18 certificate and which play interestingly with the character dynamics as well as playing into, and adding to, the philosophical conflicts.
This is the first film in eleven years from Thomas Clay, and if only by dint of the amount of hats he wears, it’s clearly a passion project. As well as writing and directing, Clay serves as producer, editor and composed the very effective score, which is another element the film sometimes uses to lean in to its genre influences. Being this much of a one man operation can mean a film becomes self-indulgent, the work of someone who needed to be told ‘No’ on occasion. That’s not the case here. A couple of Thomas’ speeches about his interpretation of God are a little baggy, but otherwise this is a tightly controlled film, demonstrating Clay’s instinct for when to pull back and simply allow his actors to quietly suggest something and when to ramp things up. The building blocks may be familiar, but the way Clay puts them together is never less than interesting.