Wednesday 17 January 2018

Lies We Tell (UK 2017: Dir Mitu Misra)

Any film that starts off with Harvey Keitel being driven around the streets of Bradford and ends up with Gabriel Byrne facing off a mad dog must have something going for it, right?

And Lies We Tell does have a lot going for it. Ish.

Gabriel Byrne is Donald, world weary driver to shady boss Demi (Keitel). When Demi dies suddenly, his last request is for Donald to visit his home and clear away any traces of Demi's extra marital relationship with a Pakistani girl called Amber (who by day is a trainee lawyer), including an intimate video of them together. Mid clearout, Amber turns up at the house, and an uneasy friendship between the two develops. Amber has been seeing Demi as a way of obtaining money for her legal education, and to free herself from her family, ruled by the vicious and calculating KD, who has links to the Bradford underworld. Amber and KD, who are cousins, were once 'married' on paper to appease the family but agreed not to consummate the relationship, except that KD changed his mind. But any control that Amber has on KD's behaviour vanishes when he turns his attentions to Amber's 16 year old sister Miriam. And Amber has other problems, namely that copies of the incriminating video are still floating around, potentially jeopardising her burgeoning legal career.

Gabriel Byrne and Harvey Keitel in Lies We Tell
Donald's constantly perplexed gaze, as he tries to assist Amber in her plight to extricate herself from Demi's life and do right by her family, is one likely to be shared by an audience not previously exposed to the harsher side of life in a Northern city. Bradford, where the film is located, has been used as the setting for other 'gritty' films like Room at the Top (1959) and Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987). But this is arguably the first time that the experience of a working class Muslim family and indeed the sub culture of young minority ethnic groups has been depicted in this way. Director Mitu Misra shows us the highs and lows of a society normally either pilloried or ignored by the media, and it is to his credit that he doesn't sweeten the pill. Credit should also be given to Sibylla Deen, who as Amber shows the right combination of grit and uncertainty (and as an Australian does a pretty convincing Bradford accent).

On the downside Lies We Tell does have a lot of inconsistencies. Bryne seems rather lost in the role of Donald, unsure of his motivation from scene to scene (he just looks tired). And Mark Addy, who plays Donald's friend Billy, looks like he was slated for a much larger part which may have been trimmed during editing - there are scenes between Billy, Donald and Amber that are played out without context.

Gabriel Byrne at the end of his tether in Lies We Tell
For a first film Misra has also crammed in too many elements - to make them work needed a steadier and more accomplished hand. Apart from the family entanglements in this country there's a land dispute which is touched on but never fully explored. There's also some schemes of mysticism among the Muslim citizens which doesn't help the film defend itself from claims of racism. And the thriller and domestic themes never really gel together. I wondered whether Misra may have been better off simply telling the story of a Muslim family in Bradford, and the tensions with an older daughter who wishes to break out of the household and start a career as a lawyer. It's one that hasn't really been told before, and arguably didn't need the expositional criminal trimmings.

But while the strands of this film don't all quite hold together, there are some good set pieces, and the vibrant photography of the streets (and clubs) of Bradford contrast well with scenes shot against the city's backdrop of imposing buildings and immaculate formal gardens. This is after all a film about Bradford, so it's perhaps right that Lies We Tell's contrasts are as diverse as the city itself.

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