Fanny Lye Deliver’d is set firmly in the 17th century, but it strikes an undeniably modern chord. That’s partly because its themes of isolation and revolution chime loudly with today’s tumultuous times, but also because, in the hands of writer-director Thomas Clay, the film feels like a fresh and intimate take on a familiar period of British history.

Clay has chosen to distil the huge ideological, political and religious changes that tore through England in the post-civil war years into the experiences of a single (fictional) woman – farmer’s wife Fanny Lye (played by Maxine Peake).

A casualty of war herself – sexual assault being commonplace as the country was torn asunder – Fanny is now resigned to her downtrodden life on a Shropshire farm with her dominant puritanical husband John (Charles Dance) and young son. When couple Thomas Ashbury (Freddie Fox) and Rebecca Henshaw (newcomer Tanya Reynolds) barge naked into their lives, on the run from the law, Fanny convinces her sceptical husband to give them sanctuary. It soon transpires that the pair are followers of a new, more free-thinking religion, and Fanny has her mind opened to fresh possibilities. Her awakening, when it comes, is seismic.

“When I was young, I read the book by Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. It transforms your view of British history,” says Clay of the seeds of an idea that has taken almost a decade to bring to the screen. “I wanted to make something about the 17th century, and the radical groups that existed during the civil war period. I also wanted to make a western. I guess the eureka moment was realising I could combine the two things.”

As a result, Clay’s film is more immersive thriller than staid history lesson. Fanny’s journey of discovery is peppered with moments of edge-of-the-seat tension and violent brutality, but amid it all she stands at the centre of the action and, ultimately, as master of her own fate.

“It’s always been about having someone at the centre of this story who absorbs these different points of view, and then forms her own opinions and tries to work out her own way forward,” Clay says. “And [that period] was the beginning of the women’s rights movement, by [people like] Margaret Fell, who co-founded the Quakers. People going out there and putting their lives at risk for what they believed in. You can’t really tell this story without addressing those issues.”

With that in mind, Clay knew his film rested on its casting and says that he always had Peake in mind for the role. “She can communicate that this is someone who has a sense of history,” she says. “You need that with Fanny; there’s a depth to her, an inner life. You have to try and figure out what she’s thinking. It’s also important to Maxine to have that authenticity, that she’s able to stand on set and feel she’s there in that world. When we first spoke, it was clear that we had a shared view of how the film should be made.”

Peake, who has made a career out of playing multi-faceted women across film, TV and theatre, agrees that she felt an immediate connection to the project. “I thought it was a beautiful script; very wordy, complex and interesting,” she says. “On paper, even though it’s called Fanny Lye Deliver’d, there’s a lot of men talking. But actually, you realise that there’s a lot of hot air around her and the film becomes quite relevant to her as it reveals the patriarchy and the oppression she’s been under for a long time.

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Fanny Lye Deliver’d (2019)

“Fanny is a victim of circumstance,” she continues. “She’s been through horrendous treatment through the civil war; sexually abused and attacked. So this is a woman who has learnt to quietly get by. She’s so observant, so intelligent but for her own personal survival she’s got to keep quiet. She’s never submissive, she just can’t let people read her – especially her husband.”

Fanny’s visceral self-emancipation could see her cast in the role of modern feminist heroine but, for Peake, there’s always a balance to be struck between historical accuracy and contemporary influence. “It’s trying to tap into what you can relate to in contemporary life, but you have to remember the history and where you are specifically,“ she explains. “These women did have personalities and intelligence, it’s just that they had shackles put on them.

Peake’s commitment to character authenticity was helped, she says, by the film’s incredible set: an entire farm built over three months in the depths of the Shropshire countryside using materials and techniques from the time. “To not be in the studio, and to know the world is just outside the window, it makes such a big difference in terms of creating a world. And in feeling that you’re a part of that world.”

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Thomas Clay and Freddie Fox in production on Fanny Lye Deliver’d (2019)

“Bringing the tools and knowledge together was key,” says Clay of the set’s construction. “The whole thing was designed to suit certain shots, to ensure that the sun would be in the right place and we could get that continuity. The rooms were slightly larger than they would have been in the period to allow for the cameras. [Cinematographer] Giorgos [Arvanitis] was complaining about the ceiling a lot, though, he thought it was far too low!”

And the filmmaker employed another modern invention to help set the scene. “Visually, the film was supposed to be set in the snow, to increase the sense of isolation,” notes Clay. “We started moving away from that idea, and I wanted to find a different way of creating that feeling. So we got three smoke machines out, attached them to long plastic tubes and switched them on. Within seconds this beautiful mist had filled the entire valley, and everyone fell in love with it. But on that day, there was almost no wind. So once we actually started filming, the moment the wind changed it caused havoc. When you’re outside, you’re also having to deal with the light continuity. So those two things together were a challenge.”

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Fanny Lye Deliver’d (2019)

The production shot for 10 weeks in February 2016, navigating such things as flooding and an abundance of mud, and then Clay embarked on the film’s post-production. It took longer than intended, thanks to his particular requirements for the film’s score which, despite the period setting, reflects on a more modern sensibility – albeit played entirely on instruments from the mid-17th century.

“Because we went for this 70s western feel with the photography, I wanted the score to match that,” explains Clay. “If you look at those films, they always have orchestral scores, and to have those character hooks and line motifs was important.”

Having struggled to find a composer who could deliver the right sound, Clay – who studied music at university – was persuaded to compose it himself; a process which took a year, even before he went about assembling the musicians to play it.

“It’s definitely harder than getting a regular orchestra; there’s not as many people that play these instruments. As a result of that, we had to bring in quite a cast of characters from around Europe. And when it comes to recording, we had to be quite careful about who would play together and who would be tracked separately. Some instruments are extremely loud, some are really quiet.”

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Fanny Lye Deliver’d (2019)

This combination of collaboration and determination has shaped Fanny Lye Deliver’d’s decade-long journey, and both its director and star are excited for the film to finally find an audience. Peake in particular hopes that it will provide yet more proof that female-driven stories can be original and exciting.

“Sometimes I get scripts and I’m not sure what the character’s journey is,” she says. “And a lot of the time you feel that women get punished for having an enlightenment. While Fanny is treated badly, she’s not being punished for her sexual awakening. She’s free, she escapes, anything is possible for her.

“I still think there’s work to be done on reflecting real women’s lives and experience,” Peake continues. “Women don’t just revolve around their fertility, or what their love life may not be. The female experience is multifaceted. There’s still a massive diversity conversation to be had, and a hell of a lot of work to be done. But in the current climate people have been given a good kick in the pants so hopefully things will start to move forward.”

Originally published: 29 June 2020