It is easy to romanticize the past but what we often overlook is how difficult and awful it was for women. Women in historical stories are often portrayed as fierce, headstrong, and independent, but much more common was that they were sheltered and abused. This the case of one Fanny Lye (Maxine Peake), husband to John Lye (Charles Dance), a devout Christian and former member of Oliver Cromwell’s army. It is, at least, until two strangers happen into their lives.
The strangers in question are Thomas and Rebecca (Freddie Fox and Tanya Reynolds), who sneak into the Lye farm while the family is at church. They have nothing –not even clothes– except their beliefs, and those beliefs have them at odds with the local sheriff and are about to put them at odds with the Lyes.
Fanny Lye Deliver’d (also known as The Delivered in some territories) is a bleak and singular film. The brainchild of writer and director Thomas Clay, the film takes place almost entirely on the Lye farm and plays like a religious prequel to Funny Games. As Thomas and Rebecca insinuate themselves into the Lyes household, they begin to nudge John and Fanny to shake loose their morals, revealing John to be more of a tyrant than you already assumed and Fanny to have an awakening to her own self-worth.
Maxine Peake is excellent as Fanny, who is entirely reserved right up until the moment she isn’t anymore. In those moments, she brings catharsis to the character (and the audience) as she considers herself and her own wants and needs maybe for the first time.
Charles Dance is his own reliable self as her husband, while Freddie Fox gets to chew the scenery monologuing about personal freedom and the true nature of man and god. Where the film works, it really works. This includes the final few minutes, which are suddenly and somewhat callously blood-soaked, and as stated before: incredibly cathartic once it gets where it’s going. Where it doesn’t work is that although Dance, Peake, Fox, and Reynolds are all giving their all, they all seem to be giving it to different movies; Fox and Reynolds, in particular, seem to have run naked to the Lye farm from a lurid erotic thriller located down the road.
Another issue is that the story ends right around the time that it probably should have gotten going. Although nearly two hours long, Fanny’s full awakening doesn’t come until near the end of the story, and she literally rides off to the sound of narration telling us what a rich and interesting life she went on to lead, and this film ends up feeling like the flashbacks cut out from that movie. A sexual encounter also brings about that awakening because of course it is; it’s not like there is any other way for a woman to come into her own in film, right?
Still, there’s a lot to admire in a film that is so singularly one mans vision. The cinematography is all at once gorgeous and feels like a loving homage to the 1970s, the location looks and feels authentic, but ultimately if you are paying attention in the first act, you will certainly figure out where it is going in the third. To be fair, it’s the journey there that matters, but on that, your mileage will definitely vary.
Fanny Lye Deliver’d is streaming as part of the Victoria Film Festival for residents of British Columbia through February 14th.