The world has a problem with sexual violence; film-makers have a responsibility to address the subject, but we should look back in horror about the way women have been exploited in the past. In 2006, Thomas Clay’s brutal home-invasion film The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael barely snuck out, shocking the unhappy few who saw it with several graphic, protracted depictions of rape, something the director explained away as vital to his critique of modern warfare. Now Clay is back with another brutal home invasion story, and another protracted rape scene, and this time his excuse for wallowing in such cruelty is that he’s got something to say about women’s liberation.
This time, however, the historical situation is different. We’re in an isolated farmhouse in Shropshire in 1657, and John Lye (Charles Dance) returns to his home to find two interlopers, Thomas (Freddie Fox) and Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds) who have slipped inside. Thomas takes a knife to the throat of their son, encouraging John to pretend to authorities that everything is fine, then ties John to the bedroom furniture so that he can watch him indulge in a threesome with his girlfriend and wife. For Fanny Lye, being forced to sleep with strangers after her child is held at knifepoint is a liberating experience, or at least that’s what the voice-over suggests; not everyone may agree with Clay’s take.
This film bears a British Film Institute title-card, it’s publicly funded, and sees Peake revise the kind of long-suffering character she played in 2019’s Gwen. Like Clay’s Great Ecstasy or Paul Andrew Williams’ Cherry Tree Lane, there seems to be a endless porridge pot of public cash for middle-aged males who want to engage in creating vivid portraits of sexual brutality towards women. Dragging out each moment, Clay’s camera watches dispassionately when observing threatened children or focuses on the engorged erection of the intruder pressed against Fanny’s backside as he forces her to copulate with him by force in front of her husband. There’s also plenty of anachronistic dialogue (“Lose the attitude!’), sub-League of Gentleman comedy and a mystifying reference to the ‘legend’ of Fanny Lye; aside from a predictable Michael Winner-esque punch-line, Fanny is little more than a passive viewer of the horrors done to her family.
If you care to take a look, it’s distressing just how many films feature violence, verbal or physical, towards women. Emerging after three years on the shelf, yet currently rated at 100 per-cent fresh on aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Fanny Lye Deliver’d is just the same old violent male fantasy dressed up as a woman’s liberation; I Spit on Your Historical Grave would be an apt title. Professionally made and acted, Clay’s idea of woman’s liberation is as insulting as blackface; women must have the chance to tell their own stories of liberation rather than have men do it for them, if only to provide balance against such regular emissions of publically funded misogyny.