I was hardly his biggest fan, but I cannot deny that the writer-director Thomas Clay introduced a new note to British cinema at the start of the millennium. That note was a low, ominous hum or rumble, some indication that terrible violence was on its way. It was there, getting louder by the second, in his 2005 breakout The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, a film altogether too in thrall to the punitive Noe-Breillat-Haneke strand of the New Extreme Cinema; it was present to a lesser degree in Soi Cowboy, Clay's mopey 2008 drama about sex tourism. A decade on, with Brexit a tragic fait accompli and the British film industry concluding there's now only money available to make exportable period drama, Clay has returned with Fanny Lye Deliver'd, an odd, ragged tale set in 17th century Shropshire; it reacquaints us with that signature note as early as the film's opening scene, showing a surrogate Adam and Eve - as naked as the day they were born, suggesting some new, costumeless approach to period drama - being chased through a forest by jackbooted riders. The couple - unmarried lovers Thomas (Freddie Fox) and Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds) - find sanctuary in a household where the eponymous Lye (Maxine Peake) tends the kitchen and son of her retired Army husband John (Charles Dance), and they come bearing new ideas, a certain freshness of attitude. The look on Thomas's face as he ogles a ladder-bound Fanny reminds us we're mere centuries away from Leslie Nielsen's Frank Drebin doing similar to Priscilla Presley in The Naked Gun. Yet these free-love fugitives represent exactly the kind of mischief and individualism, the general going against the grain, that was being stamped out under the conformist Cromwell. Clay's thesis, set out in an opening title card, is that this period was formative in establishing the make-up of British society. I'm not sure that entirely holds, but he's at least coming at history from a different perspective than the cosily conservative Downtonites.
He shows up armed, too. Those first features did much to suggest Clay was a British filmmaker possessed of a properly cinematic sensibility, someone who knew how (and was willing) to move his camera. You spy that again here, not least in the early travelling shot that watches the Lye clan set off for church, then follows the movements of an especially well-trained goose across a courtyard to where the nude arrivistes are making their entrance. The question hanging over Clay has always concerned the ends to which he deploys such virtuosity. His earlier works were glumly pessimistic about the state of the world, programmed to travel in one direction alone: downhill. Fanny Lye Deliver'd is heading that way, too, but it has the nous to disguise it for a while in a way that feels beneficial for director and audience alike. Here is proof of what happens when an independently minded creative, scrabbling round on the fringes of an industry that may or may not want him, suddenly takes delivery of the money that will keep him going a few months longer: there is, in the new film's early scenes, a lightening of mood that actually becomes Clay's filmmaking. He's interested in how this social experiment plays out, and we see him troubling to set up this world before it's either dashed or changed forever. Production designer Nenad Pecur gifts him with an authentic-looking 17th century habitat, and the fresh air surrounding the Lyes' muddily modest estate seems to do everyone good: for once, Clay's typically tightly-bound, oppressive universe opens up. What ensues unfolds as a more collaborative exercise than either The Great Ecstasy... or Soi Cowboy, which felt like forceful impositions at best, demanding performers and audience alike bow down in the gutter, and think long and hard about everything they've witnessed; the actors here simply never look as cowed, and respond more variedly to the task at hand.
Only late on does Fanny Lye... betray its maker's heavyhandedness, what we might call its feet of Clay. It's present to some degree in Reynolds' voiceover, which feels like the result of the extra meetings that come with bigger budgets, and tends merely to spell the film's subtler developments out in florid archaisms; it's there, too, in Clay's own score, thunderously underlining images that might have been better off being allowed to breathe. The 112-minute running time starts to feel punitive: we get bogged down amid the second act, where the couple plant their feet more aggressively under the Lyes' table and we have to wait for the change they represent to take effect (aided, on screen, by a flagon of wine laced with magic mushrooms). The film that eventually pulls itself over the finish line resembles less the grand statement it wanted to be than evidence of an ongoing work-in-progress. You sense Clay straining with every fibre to turn in something less inflexible than his earlier works, and thus show his paymasters that he might still have a career; but the strain, which is the strain of making compromises and finding a balance he can live with, remains the issue. In the French film industry, where any wannabe auteur gets to shoot a film a year, that issue would be worked out within five years, a decade tops. In the UK, where funding is far less forthcoming, Clay has made three films in fifteen years, and still isn't there yet. There's a nagging hypocrisy at the heart of this filmmaker's project that hasn't been resolved: he's drawn to sex and violence but - disdainful of the popular genres that would allow him to revel in such filth - he feels obliged to frame them as part of some lofty social critique. The parallel Fanny Lye Deliver'd sets up between Britain Then and Britain Now falls apart and fades in the mind; but as a reflection of the tensions inherent in Clay's thinking - continue to plough the same lonely, rectitudinous furrow, or loosen up and make some dough - this tale of woe proves curiously revealing.
Fanny Lye Deliver'd is now streaming via Curzon and the BFI.