By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Maxine Peake, Charles Dance and Freddie Fox
Written and directed by Thomas Clay
“When life closes a door, God opens a window.”
A fine maxim, so far as it goes. What often goes unremarked upon is that such openings are not manned exclusively by the divine. There are, in fact, times when a door is slammed closed—say, by a devout but severely mislead fanatic—and, whether summoned by ignorance or desperation, it is a force very much resembling the devil that tears open the shutters and throws up the sash. All of which is to say that the horror-infused British period drama THE DELIVERED (released across the pond as FANNY LYE DELIVER’D and available now Stateside via VOD) may ultimately be a tale of against-all-odds personal liberation–but it is a very sinister one, leavened with no shortage of shocking twists, turns and depravities.
THE DELIVERED opens on a Shropshire farm in 1657, only a few years after the end of the English Civil War. It is bucolic from a distance, but as we get closer, the roughness and brutality of the lives lived there becomes increasingly apparent. The patriarch, John Lye (Charles Dance), is a veteran of Oliver Cromwell’s army and rules his roost with a similar puritanical zeal. It is left to his wife Fanny (Maxine Peake) and preteen son Arthur (Zak Adams) to find exceedingly small joys in the tiny moments not occupied by chores, worship and a constant penance that blurs the line between family and religion.
This is not all that surprising; tales set in this era, concerning these sorts of social milieu, almost exclusively offer generalized oppression and enforced prostration as a given. If it was any other way, it has been obscured quite effectively. What is unusual, however, is the young comely couple, Thomas (Freddie Fox) and Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds), who sprint onto the property buck naked save for a locket containing “a toenail of Christ himself” (!), which apparently has unshackled them from what we might in modern parlance describe as “limiting beliefs.” Initially, John wants to run the interlopers out, yet once Thomas explains the Eden-esque wardrobe with a vague tale of being accosted, robbed and stripped by a gang of thieves and humble-brags of his own part in the war, John allows the pair to remain. (A lingering lecherous glance at a nude and sleeping Rebecca suggests he may have ulterior motives.)
John regrets the decision almost immediately for two reasons: First, Thomas, despite saying all the right and righteous things, is impishly determined to rile up Fanny and Arthur, generally turning life on its head and forcing John to whip his family with a switch. (To be fair, the patriach does not need much prodding.) Then, when the High Sheriff for the Council of State (a very Witchfinder General-y character portrayed with sinister zeal by Peter McDonald) and his deputy (a semi-demented Perry Fitzpatrick) arrive in search of a couple of birthday-suited refugees who instigated a heretical orgy at a nearby establishment not long ago, Thomas pulls a sword, puts it to the throat of young Arthur and threatens to kill the only begotten unless John makes like everything is fine and tells the authorities to scram. Which he does. What comes next is, at first, predictable: No longer wed to the ruse, Thomas and Rebecca spread their metaphorical dirty black wings and, with John dethroned (perhaps temporarily) as iron-fisted ruler of the household, mother and son face real temptation.
Chaos, however, is unpredictable, and thus, so is THE DELIVERED. As all the usual authority-figure suspects–theocratic, familial, ostentatiously sensitive yet petty and marauding man-child–war with one another, Fanny slowly discovers her own power, which she does not cede to any of the aforementioned, but rather employs to forge her own path through terror and viscera and blasphemy and social mores to self-ownership. Whether she actually gets there—and if so, with whom—is a question it would be inappropriate to answer here. Better to stay as impish and sly as a certain clothing-averse Englishman.
What is appropriate to say is that writer/director Thomas Clay does a wonderful job of creating a cinematic atmosphere that is surrealistic, heightened and lyrical as well as naturalistic, brutal and earthbound. (No small achievement, that.) Simultaneously, Clay deftly weaves a story that is emotionally resonant, harrowing, funny, scary, philosophical and, finally, weirdly inspiring. The dynamic cast is another key asset in this regard, plumbing depths and exploring layers. All the leads slay their respective roles, but Peake must be singled out for particular praise: She guides us along a multidimensional arc, believably crossing from submissive resignation to fiery, awe-inspiring emancipation.
THE DELIVERED is a thought-provoking, strange and beautifully rendered film. Alas, though it may be set in the 17th century, it is, amidst this tumultuous moment in which our cultural and political classes appear only all too eager to regress back into more dogmatic, less liberal regimes, an exceedingly timely film.
In other words, if things continue to devolve, we may need to find our inner Fanny—and fast.