Review: Fanny Lye Deliver'd is a grim, violent Puritan tale

Fanny Lye Deliver'd (MA15+, 102 minutes)

3 stars

Fanny Lye Deliver'd (aka The Delivered) is a film that left me with mixed feelings. While there's a lot to respect and think about, I came out with the feeling it could have been better and that what we're told happened after the story finished might have been more interesting than much of what transpired.

For whatever reason, writer-director-composer Thomas Clay's film has taken a while to come here: it was released in Britain in 2019 after years of development, filming and post-production (and there's a longer version, too),

A scene from Fanny Lye Deliver'd. Picture: Sharmill

A scene from Fanny Lye Deliver'd. Picture: Sharmill

It's set in 1657 on and near an isolated farm in Shropshire. Former soldier John (Charles Dance) is a rigid, humourless Puritan who takes the biblical admonition about sparing the rod and spoling the child seriously, much to the pain of his much younger wife Fanny (Maxine Peak) and their son Arthur (Zak Adams). But at least Arthur is male, which makes him superior to Fanny in John's eyes, so although it's a pretty austere life for them all, she suffers the most.

Then comes something that will irrevocably alter all their lives. One Sunday when they return from church, they discover two fugitives. Thomas (Freddie Fox) and Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds) have arrived and have taken liberties, starting a fire in the couple's house and wearing their clothes. They tell a tale of being robbed of everything and ask for help. Since Thomas says he was also fighting on John's side, he agrees they can stay the night.

But Thomas and Rebecca - who narrates - are not all they seem, as the Puritan couple soon discover, and some nasty surprises await.

Fanny Lye Deliver'd has been described as a Puritan western, and I can see why, but there are times when it borders on Puritan torture porn. While not as graphic as most of the latter, a nasty horror subgenre, there are moments that seem gratuitous. In terms of storytelling, there are times when things seem to happen too slowly or quickly or unconvincingly, though the film does compel attention.

There is a lot to admire here, The film looks amazing: the costumes and production design are striking and the subdued colours, often viewed through mist, make many shots look almost like paintings. The small cast is excellent, especially Dance, who gives his stern character some humanity, and Peak, who gradually discovers there are other ways to live and is tempted by the possibilities.The occasional anachronistic-sounding piece of dialogue aside, there's a strong period feeling.

Clay's score is impressively varied in its themes and instrumentation but does seem to be lathered on a bit too much and rather awkward. At times it feels as though the music is simply playing in the background with little relation to what's happening on screen. And the inclusion of an arrangement of the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony more than 150 years before the composer wrote it was another jarring anachronism, too familiar to be fully effective.

On the night I saw this, a group of teenagers sitting nearby in the sparsely populated Dendy cinema talked and moved around throughout. I don't know what attracted them to Fanny Lye Deliver'd or why they even bothered coming to the cinema. Afterwards I asked one of them what they thought of the film and the reply was, "I didn't understand a lot of it."

Paying attention has its rewards and despite its flaws, so does this film. If you're interested in the period and not squeamish, it's worth catching.

This story Grim and violent Puritan western first appeared on The Canberra Times.