By Alex Ramon.
As startling and expressionistic in its visual style as it is intricate and juicy in its dialogue, a film of ideas that’s also a thrilling, unpredictable ride, Thomas Clay’s Fanny Lye Deliver’d is one of the mostdistinctive and dazzlingly enjoyable British films in decades. A “Puritan Western” shot in 35mm, Clay’s third feature unfolds on the Shropshire farm of a couple, John (Charles Dance) and Fanny Lye (Maxine Peake), and their young son Arthur (Zak Adams) in 1657: that is, during the Interregnum following the Civil War. A gruff authoritarian who fought as a Captain in Cromwell’s army, John rules the homestead as forcefully as he conducted himself on the battlefield. One day, returning from church, the family find two mysterious strangers, Thomas (Freddie Fox) and Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds), seeking shelter at the farm. What follows from there is best left undisclosed, but suffice it to say that the younger couple’s presence thoroughly disrupts the Lye household, as Puritan doctrine clashes with radical Ranter ideas, and the hothouse atmosphere is further fuelled by the appearance of a bloodthirsty Sheriff (Peter MacDonald).
Tipping its capotain to work by Cimino, Leone, Peckinpah and Malick, as well as Michael Reeves’sWitchfinder General, and with a superb score composed by its writer-director, Fanny Lye Deliver’d delivers an absolute master class in audiovisual storytelling and sustains ts own distinctive vision. Mobilising elements of 1960s/1970s folk thrillers alongside a valuable recreation of an often-overlooked period in British history, and filmed on a purpose-built farm set, the film gets wilder and weirder as it progresses, offering poetic pastoral, sly humour, explicit violence, feminist awakening, full frontal Fox, tangy religious debate, and all manner of other surprises, too. It’s a stone-cold British cult classic in the making. I talked to writer-director-composer Thomas Clay ahead of the film’s digital release on 26 June.
Alex Ramon: What was your initial inspiration for Fanny Lye Deliver’d?
Thomas Clay: When I was young I read Christopher Hill’s book The World Turned Upside Down. It’s a book that really transforms your view of British history because it’s not like anything you get taught at school. From the moment I read it I knew that I wanted to make a film about the 17th century but for a long time I couldn’t find the right way to get into the subject. So it was an idea that was hanging around for years in the background. I’ve also always loved Westerns and wanted to make one for a long time. So I guess the “Eureka!” moment was realising that I could maybe bring those two things together and make a Western of sorts but set it in England in the 17th century. That was in 2012 and that’s when I started work on the script.
The 17th century, and particularly the period covered in your film, is so rich and pivotal to our history yet it seldom gets dramatised, while we have endless films and series about Tudor monarchs, for example. Why do you think this fascinating period gets overlooked?
There are a handful of dramas about the Civil War and its aftermath: Winstanley, Witchfinder General, Cromwell with Richard Harris, The Devil’s Whore TV series. But not enough! History and films both tend to focus on ‘grand events,’ Kings and Queens, and the stories of the common people get overlooked. Part of what’s fascinating about this particular period is that the portable printing press had just been invented and the government was starting to lose control of the countryside and areas outside the major population centres. So you had this explosion of pamphleteering, with regular people expressing their opinions on politics, philosophy and religion. It’s a brief period of time before Cromwell starts to reimpose control again but there’s still this wealth of material there, in which the voice of the common people explodes.
Beyond Hill’s book and the pamphlets, what was your research process like for the film?
What was interesting was that the Reenactment community in the UK – those groups who dress up to recreate historical battles – had such an amazing wealth of knowledge. We had various advisors on the film, both at the script stage and later on, but the reenactors were particularly helpful. On social history, clothing, food, and day to day detail, they often had more depth of knowledge than the historians we consulted.
The film has a very distilled time frame and location but you give it such a big, mythic, expressionistic quality that’s rare in British cinema. It feels like you’re using the medium to its fullest, and there’s a real 1960s/70s spirit to the picture. What were some of your inspirations for the look and style of the film and how was it to work with the great cinematographer Giorgos Arvanitis again?
Well, coming back to Westerns, I’m a big fan of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s a big, epic film but actually about two thirds of it takes place on the McBain farm, and most of the best sequences are set there. That was a huge inspiration for us in keeping to one location in our film and really using it to the full. And then looking at Monte Hellman’s Ride in the Whirlwind as well as other examples of films that have one location and a small group of characters but incredible tension and drama.
I knew early on that I wanted to work with Giorgos again on this project. Another film that we ended up focusing in on a lot as a visual reference point was Heaven’s Gate. You know, alot of back light, mist and smoke, that sepia tone. Lighting is so important and I think it can get overlooked in films now; the boundaries are blurring between TV and cinema these days and a lot of things kind of end up looking the same. So working with Giorgos again felt very creative; this was something we hadn’t done together before, and we both really enjoyed the collaboration.
The film is as rich in its dialogue as it is in its visuals; it’s unusual to have these kinds of debates in contemporary film, especially on religious and philosophical matters. How did you approach finding an authentic 17th century Shropshire idiom (which you even incorporate into the title a bit) when writing the script?
It was a process. Reading a lot of pamphlets of the time helped to get a feel for the language and how people expressed themselves. And it really became about finding a balance between being authentic and also making sure that the language flowed, as you don’t want it to get in the way of the story. Nigel Smith, an expert on the language and culture of the period, came in to pick through the script with me, and he highlighted various things. The actors also worked closely with a dialect coach to make sure it all sounded natural.
Was the voiceover narration always part of the design? It gives the film a beautiful sense of a story being passed down, almost a folk ballad quality, and allows for lyricism, tension-building, and humour, too.
The script didn’t change much for a long time, apart from dropping a few scenes that seemed unnecessary during the shoot. But things shifted a bit in the editing and that’s where I decided to introduce the voiceover. It was an experiment at first, and we brought in Tanya [Reynolds] to read bits I’d written. Working with her, she brought so much to the narration that I fell in love with the idea of including it, and I feel that its integral to the movie now.
You get great performances from a cast comprised of veterans and newcomers. How was your casting process?
Most of the actors came on board quite late because our schedule wasn’t locked down until the last minute. We tried to make up for that with rehearsals every morning of the shoot. The exception was Maxine Peake, who was involved fairly early, a year or two before shooting started. Realising that she had the same enthusiasm for the historical period, and that we had a very similar vision of what the film could be, was really key..
It feels like Maxine Peake is very deliberate in seeking out historical projects which offer a fresh and subversive take on the past, whether it’s The Village on TV, The Welkin at the National Theatre recently, Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, or your film.
Yes, Maxine needs to feel an intellectual engagement with the material, and making sure that these overlooked stories about the past get told is really important to her.
What were the challenges of the shoot itself? How was it to work on the pupose-built set?
One of the most enjoyable parts of the whole experience was seeing this farmhouse gradually rise up. The shoot definitely had its challenges as we went on, though, and there were times when mud and flooding impeded us. We were constantly clearing out water and drying floors!
We shot in Shropshire in the winter of 2015/2016. My original plan had been to make snow an important part of the landscape of the film but we moved away from that idea. Instead, mist and smoke became an alternative way of enclosing the characters and giving a sense of isolation and claustrophobia. Our special effects team brought these smoke machines in. It was a perfect day and within seconds the valley was filled with this beautiful light that everyone fell in love with. But we quickly realised that it was more complicated than that because the moment there was any change in wind direction, the mist would go all over the place. It was tough-going, for sure, but everyone was committed and we found solutions to the issues we faced.
The whole film feels musical, rhythmic, in its camera movement, and the score adds so much to that. Was it always your intention to compose the music yourself?
It wasn’t, no! But it became hard to find a composer, and, during the search, I was thinking a lot about the score and some themes and ideas started to pop into my head. I studied music at university, something that fell by the wayside a bit as film took over. But it got to the point where I decided to sit down and make a couple of demos. I played them for the rest of the team and gradually we decided I could just do it myself. But that was one of the main reasons for the delay in post-production because it inevitably took a lot of time.
We’re in a cultural moment in which there’s a huge obsession with identity politics and questioning of who gets to tell which stories. As the male writer-director of a very feminist film about a woman’s awakening, does that affect your approach at all? Or is it just a question of telling the story you want to tell and not concerning yourself with gender as a creator?
I guess I’m not a great believer in “write what you know.” At the same time, there’s always a personal dimension to what you’re doing, something that connects you to a character, whoever they might be. When I started writing the script back in 2012 Fanny was a natural centre to the story. Women’s rights were just emerging as an issue at the time the film is set and they had an important place in the Quaker movement, in particular. There were great figures like Margaret Fell, Mary Gadbury, who was a Ranter, and Mary Dyer, the amazing Quaker woman who was part of the inspiration for the character of Fanny. I felt it was really important that that context and some of those voices were represented in the story.
Finally, you shot in 35mm and Fanny Lye is very much a big screen experience. How do you feel about the film necessarily getting an online-only release due to the pandemic?
Ideally the film should be seen in 35mm. But realistically there’s not much infrastructure there for that these days and we probably wouldn’t have had more than a few of those screenings, even without the disruption of the pandemic. Of course I’d love for the film to be coming out in cinemas, and for audiences to experience it that way. But, on the other hand, home equipment is getting better all the time and the digital release means that more people have the chance to access the film. So we’re looking on the positive side.
Fanny Lye Deliver’d is available online via Vertigo Releasing from 26 June.
Alex Ramon is a lecturer and critic currently based in Łódź, Poland. He is the author of the book Liminal Spaces: The Double Art of Carol Shields and has written and presented papers on Guy Maddin, Sarah Polley, Rawi Hage, Mordecai Richler, and Iris Murdoch. He has interviewed various directors, writers and actors including Agnieszka Holland, Andrzej Chyra, and Samuel Adamson. His current projects include a study of novel-to-film adaptations. He writes for PopMatters and British Theatre Guide and blogs at Boycotting Trends