Writer and Director: Thomas Clay
Writer-director Thomas Clay’s period drama is set in a Shropshire village farmhouse in 1657, against the backdrop of the bloody English Civil War that saw the Royalists defeated and Oliver Cromwell become Lord Protector. The household consists of war veteran Captain John Lye (Charles Dance), his long-suffering wife Fanny (Maxine Peake) and their son Arthur (a revelation in Zak Adams).
All seems to be fairly tranquil until the family – upon coming home from church one Sunday – come across two unexpected guests crashed out in their barn. At first Captain John gives them a night to stay before taking them to the local constable to look into their claims to have been robbed nearby. But the couple ingratiate themselves to the extent that they become a permanent fixture, despite John’s reservations.
In this way Thomas Ashbury (Freddie Fox) gains a foothold into the family’s lives with his partner Rebecca Henshaw (Tanya Reynolds), supposedly his wife, befriending the bewildered Fanny. Then this arrangement comes crashing down when they are visited by law enforcers in search of radical libertines on the run.
The entire atmosphere of cosy rural simplicity is broken and replaced by scenes of horrific violence. Fanny at first seems to be taken in by Thomas’ radical anti-religious doctrines and comes close to letting him have his wicked way. But her thoughts soon turn to revenge against all forms of violent patriarchal dominance.
Clay’s period instrument score adds to the suspense and horror and the attention to historical detail is exacting. The film benefits from stunning cinematography by Giorgos Arvanitis and the realism of Michael O’Connor’s costumes. It serves as a microcosm of the English social scene of its time with an ending that is as subversive as it is surprising.
Dance performs with an underlying menace, while Peake manages to gradually transform from victim to victor with great subtlety. As Thomas, Fox portrays a complex character with verve and veracity while Reynolds as Rebecca carefully conjures up her character’s feisty feminism. Although the violence is horrific it is far from gratuitous, while the sexuality in the narrative is more implied than on display.
As well as commenting on the state of religion under Cromwell, Clay also has us thinking about faith today, and the patriarchal state of both Anglican and Catholic churches and even the ‘free’ churches too. And what would replace the nuclear family? Problematic thoughts indeed!
Following its success at last year’s London Film Festival the film is now available online through Vertigo Releasing