'Lies We Tell': Film Review

Weak script and amateurish direction sink this dead-on-arrival debut.

First-time director Mitu Misra’s culture-clash thriller is a local British story with a starry international cast.

Gabriel Byrne and Harvey Keitel lend a light sheen of heavyweight credibility to Lies We Tell, the debut feature by Anglo-Indian businessman turned indie filmmaker Mitu Misra. Set and shot in the northern English city of Bradford, this culture-clash thriller may be timely and heartfelt, but not even a solid team of well-credentialed talents both on-screen and off can salvage its cliché-sodden storyline and woefully flat direction. Scheduled for limited theatrical release in both the U.S. and U.K. from Friday, Misra’s passionless passion project already feels dead in the water.

At least Byrne gives a reliably craggy, soulfully disheveled performance as Donald, a downtrodden middle-aged divorcee working as a chauffeur to Yorkshire-based American billionaire tycoon Demi (Keitel, coasting through a five-minute semi-cameo paycheck role). Loyal and discreet, Donald routinely turns a blind eye to his employer’s clandestine extramarital assignations. But when Demi dies suddenly, he bequeaths his trusted manservant one final task: to spare his family any embarrassment by cutting all ties to his beautiful young Anglo-Pakistani mistress Amber (Australian-born rising star Sibylla Deen).

But erasing Amber from the picture is easier said than done. After an initially frosty encounter, Donald slowly comes to empathize with the troubled young woman’s toxic family issues. A child of conservative Muslim immigrants, Amber was forced to marry her cousin KD (Jan Uddin) in Pakistan at the age of 16. Although KD initially agreed to a sham wedding just to uphold family honor, he later proved to be a violent rapist and pathological control freak. Ten years later, he has matured into a powerful underworld drug baron with an unsavory hold over his ex-wife.

With her blossoming career as a junior lawyer, Amber has the option to escape Bradford and start a new life in London. But she dares not leave, because KD is scheming to tighten his malignant grip on her by marrying her teenage sister, Miriam (Danica Johnson). He also hopes to exploit Amber’s illicit relationship with Demi, which leaves her vulnerable to blackmail and ostracism from her strict Muslim community. As Donald becomes ever more protective toward Amber, a lethal clash with KD becomes inevitable.

Judged purely on generic thriller terms, Lies We Tell might just about pass muster as a daytime cable-TV movie. But judged as a serious piece of cinema, Misra’s directing debut is an obstinately tone-deaf misfire full of stock characters, wooden performances, clunky lines and risibly absurd plot twists. Painted in broad strokes as either demonic villains or saintly heroes, the mono-dimensional main players appear to have escaped from a soapy Bollywood melodrama and stumbled by chance into a gritty British urban thriller, creating a jarring dissonance that could almost have been purposely engineered to fail.

Any meager pleasures that Lies We Tell can offer are purely technical. Given that neither Byrne nor Deen are British, their commitment to mastering such a regionally specific English accent is admirably thorough -- especially Deen, who could pass for a Bradford native. The rugged, hilly Yorkshire landscape is also framed in handsome picture-book tones by seasoned Bollywood cinematographer Santosh Sivan.

But the twinkly orchestral score by Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner, a veteran Kieslowski collaborator, is a poor choice for a film that aspires to downbeat social realism. And a supporting cast of British screen favorites including Mark Addy (Game of Thrones) and Gina McKee (Phantom Thread) are mostly lumbered with thankless minor roles and excruciatingly bad dialogue. So much talent, most of it wasted.

Production company: Bradford International Film Associates
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Sibylla Deen, Jan Uddin, Harvey Keitel, Mark Addy, Emily Atack, Danica Johnson
Director: Mitu Misra
Screenwriters: Ewen Glass, Andy McDermott, Mitu Misra
Producers: Danny Gulliver, Andy McDermott, Malcolm Scott
Cinematographer: Santosh Sivan
Editor: Chris Gill
Music: Zbigniew Preisner
109 minutes