THE film Fanny Lye, Deliver’d is prefaced with a faux British Board of Film Censors X Certificate. In reality, it has an 18 classification. It is as if to date the movie to the 1970s, when the historian Christopher Hill’s The World Upside Down was published. The film draws its inspiration from the book, which chronicles the various radical movements afoot during Oliver Cromwell’s republic. An opening credit tells us that 1657 was a time when present-day personal, political, and sexual freedoms were forged.
The writer-director Thomas Clay presents us with several versions of Puritanism, none of them that attractive. Fanny Lye (Maxine Peake) is the dutiful wife of John (Charles Dance), a Roundhead soldier now farming in Shropshire. They have a young son, Arthur (Zak Adams). John’s Christianity is of the sternest kind, and he does not spare the rod.
While at Sunday church, a couple as naked and unashamed as the prelapsarian Adam and Eve enter their property. When confronted, Thomas Ashbury (Freddie Fox) claims that he and his “wife” (Tanya Reynolds) were set upon by thieves who stripped them of their raiments. They were heading for the coast and sailing to New England. Whether this was true is uncertain, because things turn nasty when yet another brand of Puritanism arrives in the shape of the High Sheriff (Peter McDonald), rooting out blasphemers and fornicators. Thomas forces John into shielding the couple.
Ashbury and, it turns out, his lover, Rebecca Henshaw, are followers of a radical sect that believes that a New England can be created in their native land. Thomas tells the Lyes, now captive: “Here are your treasures. . . Only open up your insides to earthly possibility . . . a land where sin and transgression are no more.” In the event, it feels more like antinomianism, and an excuse for licentiousness and violence.
All in all, we are presented with forms of Puritanism which confirm its bad reputation. We are given hints, however, of a future great awakening both sides of the Atlantic — talk of Quakerism and Christ’s “Inner Light” within us, for example — and everyone’s right to scripture in English.
One scene shows a 1594 (sic) edition of the Geneva Bible. Other anachronis, but played on archival instruments, lapses into modern-day language, and a woman with shaved legs. These seem deliberate, to remind us that the cultural struggles of the past still resonate.
While the film embraces various genres and is endowed with subtle performances, we are left with an impression of oppression even in Puritanism’s most liberal manifestations. Under Cromwell, nobody, apparently, was prosecuted for their religion. If so, this would accord with the Puritan divine Richard Baxter’s advocacy of compassion and tolerance: “God has not made our Judgements all of a complexion no more than our faces.” As such, the film’s hope lies in what Fanny does next.
DARK WATERS (Cert. 12A) is mainstream cinema that didn’t reach much of its intended audience owing to the onset of lockdown. It is now on disc, with extra features.
This true-life story follows an entertainingly familiar narrative arc. From Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington to Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich, a relatively insignificant figure doggedly pursues Big Business corruption. The difference here is the part that faith has in righting wrong.
Mark Ruffalo (in foreground) as Rob Biliott in Dark WatersMark Ruffalo plays Rob Bilott, an attorney reluctantly drawn into the plight of a farmer from his hometown in West Virginia. The man has lost 190 cows, because, he thinks, the water supply has somehow been contaminated. A discarded chemicals plant is situated near by. The owners turn out to be DuPont, a giant industrial corporation. Bilott’s investigations lead to discovering that a toxic effluent is being discharged into the water. In an ironic twist, this is a significant component in the manufacture of Teflon, a substance to which nothing sticks, resembling DuPont’s ability to repel stains on its reputation.
We immediately know from the film’s muted palette that we are in for a sombre look at the unacceptable face of capitalism. Mark Ruffalo’s best-known performance was in Spotlight (Arts, 29 January 2016), as a journalist who exposed abuse of power in the Roman Catholic Church. Bilott is a similar role, though with a gentler nature.
Behind this righteous man stands his wife, Sarah Barlage Bilott. Anne Hathaway plays Sarah as her own person, fired by Christianity. She unyieldingly supports her husband until the case begins to compromise family life and his own health. It is she who reminds him where the strength lies to carry on. In church, she coaxes him into singing Daniel Schutte’s “I, the Lord of sea and sky” with its lines “Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send?” Implicitly, Bilott is weighing up the cost of discipleship before haltingly joining in the refrain “Here I am, Lord.”
The Academy Award nominee Todd Haynes directs this more straightforwardly than some previous ventures. He has had a penchant for dealing with people in oppressed circumstances. Far From Heaven concerned itself with an interracial liaison. Carol, based on a Patricia Highsmith story, looks at forbidden love between two women. On this occasion. he is able to provide a David-and-Goliath narrative with an emotional depth often lacking in the genre.
Haynes examines the fine line between obsessive behaviour and obedience to a faith that is prepared to persevere, no matter what. Just as importantly, the film refuses to portray Bilott as a lone agent struggling for a right true end. Sarah intervenes with Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber), Bilott’s boss. “I need you to stop making him feel like a failure.” She asks him to help Bilott find home again; and he does. It is a powerful moment. Donnelly helps to carry Bilott’s cross. He berates his colleagues: all of them should be seeking the same kind of justice. “That’s what builds faith in a system.” It is a challenge to the audience to go and do likewise.
“TWO brothers walk into a bar.” So the actor Gerard Butler begins Love Reaches Everywhere (no certification). This short film features Mary’s Meals, named after the Lord’s mother. The founders’ Christian faith inspired them after a conversation that they had over a drink. Aghast at heart-rending images of the 1990s Bosnian War, they decided to help with repeated lorryloads of food. The film depicts the world-wide work done since. More than 1.6 million meals are delivered every day.
Gerard Butler (right) with Momulu in Love Reaches EverywhereWatching, I was reminded in style of Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1969 Mother Teresa documentary Something Beautiful for God. Having experienced “a kind of epiphany”, Butler in this new film visits various projects. In Liberia, fewer than half the children attend school. With meals an incentive, education becomes a possibility, and where ethnic divisions are being overcome.
One Haiti school, amid much civil conflict, decides on a Nativity play to create unity. The actor produces it with unisex Magi and a real shepherd boy. Elsewhere, with food on hand, a new school can open and do its job. One of the teachers declares it a miracle. That may be so, but the film is swift to recognise God’s grace working just as much in those afflicted as in the donors.
The film is at www.marysmeals.org.uk