Amber (Sibylla Deen) is torn between her older lover Demi (Harvey Keitel) and her devout Muslim family in Bradford. When Demi dies, his driver Donald (Gabriel Bryne) is instructed to kick Amber out the flat she was living in for the adulterous getaways. Against his better judgement, a sympathy for Amber’s plight drags Donald into an underworld totally at odds with his unassuming personality.
There is an early scene of Amber flouncing around as ‘See Line Woman’ plays and Donald stands bemused that reminded me of Pulp Fiction’s Mia keeping Vincent in the dark as ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ plays (a key difference is Mia had the agency, Amber’s is out in the cold as her sugar daddy has bit the dust).
Another scene inside a bestial Bradford club is perhaps the most evocative of its kind in a British film since Trainspotting. Unfortunately these scenes are some of the few moments of style in a depressingly flat film. The score, by Zbigniew Preisner who composed the ‘Three Colours’ trilogy, can be cloying and repetitive. Director Mitu Misra relies on jump shocks and loud noises to disconcert the viewer, though the effect decreases over time.
It’s also rare to come across a protagonist that doesn’t need to exist. The core of the drama is Amber’s conflict between her strict Muslim family and being a mistress for a property magnate, of which Donald can only ever be a peripheral figure. Attempts to interject him into the drama feels increasingly forced, and it’s a shame that a white male actor has to steal the limelight from a rising Asian star. Mark Addy, who played Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones, and Emily Atack of The Inbetweeners fame are largely wasted in their supporting roles.
Like last years Freesia, Lies We Tell is filmed in Bradford, and both films struggle with representations of the Muslim community. While Freesia may be too pandering, Lies We Tell doesn’t push any positive community angle to Bradford’s Muslim community at all. Amber was sent to Pakistan and married off at 16, to cousin KD (Jan Uddin) who went on to commit marital rape. After their messy divorce, patriarch Zulfikar (Manzar Sehbai) wants to marry off Amber’s younger sister Miriam to the same man.
It’s abhorrent actions from awful, close-minded people enabled by the female Muslim characters and enacted by the hypocritical and chauvinistic men. Director Misra has placed the narrative awkwardly between a crime thriller and family drama, aggressively pushing sympathy for Amber’s ‘fallen woman’ persona against the cartoonishly irredeemable KD and the rest of the family.
The film has its dramatic moments, including a scene where Amber desperately tries to persuade her sister to call off the wedding while surrounded by disapproving relatives. The wedding itself is impressively staged, though at this point the drama has been strained well past breaking point. The film’s final few scenes descend into the most absurd theatrics yet, what should be tragic bringing stifled guffaws from the audience.
If you’re going in for a memorable Harvey Keitel performance leave your wishful thinking in 1994. His two scenes are both in the trailer, including a romp with the beautiful Sybilla Deen which feels awkward at best.
As a dramatic work Lies We Tell may fleetingly intrigue for its brutal portrayal of the Bradford underworld. As a narrative it echoes of Bollywood histrionics without the saving grace of musical numbers.
Mitu Misra put on hold a desire to become a filmmaker to build a very successful company, and has now poured money into this work which he also directs. While he shows brief flourishes as a director the script goes for melodrama when it needed grit, wasting opportunities for this work to expose ‘a strata of British society, that lives by its own laws in the North of England’ to cut much deeper.