Tuesday 15 October 2019

LFF 2019: Fanny Lye Deliver'd (UK/Germany 2019: Dir Thomas Clay)

Here's a short questionnaire: do you prefer historical dramas/films with strong women characters/spaghetti westerns/gore movies? If you answered 'yes' to any or all of these, there's something in Clay's latest film for you. But is this a good thing? Read on.

Fanny Lye (Maxine Peake) is a young woman growing up in Shropshire in 1657. It's six years after the end of the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell is still Protector, but the country remains lawless. Lye's husband John (Charles Dance), a vicious Puritan and ex-soldier, rules the household, keeping Fanny and their son Arthur subdued by fear, literally the master of all on which they depend.

But into their regimented lives come two strangers, both naked when we first see them, who steal into the Lye's house then barn, borrowing clothes and sheltering from pursuers. The couple are Thomas Ashbury (Freddie Fox) and Rebecca Henshaw (Tanya Reynolds) and we learn that they have been chased out of their previous accommodation for inciting orgies and arguing for the rights of women. Thomas and Rebecca are an eloquent and subversive pair, and John's decision to let them stay is the commencement of the breakdown of his family, as Thomas's honeyed words and unbridled sexuality awaken something in Fanny that years of romantically arid life with her husband have denied.  

Clay's film, as my opening comments suggest, fires off in many different directions, showing a restlessness of directorial vision that would have benefitted from something a little more subtle. Its violent conclusion, a perhaps obvious culmination of the pent up sexual and moral states of the lead characters, is still shocking, but perhaps less so when one recalls that Clay also directed the 2005 movie The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, which pulled the same last reel trick. Underneath the rather awkward tonal shifts of the film there is an interesting story trying to be told, but any attempts at subtlety are removed by a combination of unwanted humour and a soundtrack which drowns everything in an almost constant wash of mostly unwelcome instrumentation. 

On the plus side, Peake and Dance are outstanding as the subjugated wife and devilish husband: the former, looking much younger than her true age, shows persuasively the tensions wrought by struggling against the yoke of her marriage; and Dance is at his tight lipped best, his eyes conveying the mixture of anger and fear as the world he has constructed starts to unravel. Fox and Reynolds are sadly less convincing, at times feeling like their characters have strayed in from a late 1960s 'free love' movie. Some stunning footage of the Shropshire countryside renders the film more watchable than it otherwise might be, but the final result is a frustrating film in which less of everything could have been so much more. 

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