Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Sibylla Deen, Mark Addy, Gina McKee, and Harvey Keitel
Director: Mitu Misra
109 minutes (15) 2017
Bradford International DVD Region 2
Review by J.C. Hartley
Well this seems to have got a rough ride out there in the wide world of everyone-has-an-opinion. This is quite a daring film in its way, risking upsetting queasy liberal consciences (holding my hand up), risking upsetting minority/ majority sensibilities, and oh dear oh dear upsetting people who care about the correct identification of genre (hand still up; may I be excused?). Perhaps the reason I’m going against the tide here is down to expectations.
Why is this being reviewed as some sort of British noir, or thriller, citing Get Carter (1971), and Stormy Monday (1988) as distant godparents? Is it because it’s set in the North, then how lazy is that? Now, I don’t dip more than a painted toenail into that sort of critical click-bait (joking, I haven’t painted my toenails since 1976), but are British thrillers so thin on the ground that every gritty urban drama has to be corralled into the mosh pit of noir? Admittedly, the marketing department have created a montage poster of Gabriel Byrne brandishing a shotgun, like Michael Caine’s Jack Carter, although given the age of Byrne’s portrayal of ‘Donald’ the reference would be more in keeping with Harry Brown (2009).
But this is no revenge thriller, it’s simply the story of someone getting dragged into a situation not of their choosing and trying to do the right thing, whatever that is. This is the second time I’ve reviewed something trumpeted as a crime thriller, or new British noir, that turned out not to be. The last time was Trespass Against Us (2016), which turned out to be more like an extended episode of Daisy May and Trevor Cooper’s This Country (2017-8), with more swearing and less jokes. Crime and the criminal classes have their place in Lies We Tell, but then they are also increasingly staples of TV shows EastEnders and Coronation Street, and no one to the best of my knowledge has claimed those for the great tradition of British thrillers.
Chauffeur Donald (Gabriel Byrne) ferries his employer Demi (Harvey Keitel, whose every appearance sells insurance) to assignations at the swank residence he keeps for his mistress. When Demi dies, seconds into the film, he leaves instructions for Donald to tidy up, so that his widow and family will never need to know. Attending to business, Donald meets Amber (Sibylla Deen), Demi’s mistress, a young Muslim woman whose legal career he was funding as a ‘business arrangement’. Despite getting off on the wrong foot, Donald finds himself being drawn into Amber’s domestic situation, and increasingly being called upon to help out in her confrontations with her family and the cousin to whom she was once married.
Amber has broken free of her family and the restrictions of her faith, finding herself almost a pariah within her family and culture. Aged 16, she and her cousin KD (Jan Uddin), found themselves transported to Pakistan where they were told they were to be married. In order to be allowed to return to Britain they agreed between themselves to go through with the ceremony, effectively lying on the Koran and in the sight of Allah. However, once back in the UK, KD enforced his ‘rights’, inflicting marital rape upon Amber who had always viewed him as a surrogate brother. Now divorced from Amber, KD is paying court to Amber’s younger sister Miriam (Danica Johnson), despite having a white English girlfriend pregnant with his child. Worse than this, KD is involved with drug-dealing and sexual exploitation. Amber is determined that her sister will not be forced into an arranged marriage, a pawn exploited to smooth over family differences arising from her own perceived rebellion.
There’s a mcguffin of sorts, a mildly sexy video on Demi’s mobile phone, that Amber asks Donald to retrieve, overcoming her initial antipathy to him. Donald steals the phone and Amber deletes the video but a copy is retrieved by Demi’s obnoxious son who assumes he can take over where his father left off. The video finds its way into the hands of KD who tries to blackmail Amber into stopping trying to sabotage his wedding to Miriam. At times it appears that Amber is trying to impose her own emulsion of cultural values, hijab-wearing, but wine-drinking, and enjoying extra-marital sex, on her younger sister, who at one point asks what is so bad about being married.
Amber, much more than Donald, is the focus of the film, an intelligent westernised woman trying to live an independent life but hamstrung by family responsibilities. Donald by comparison is an outline, blocked-in by Gabriel Byrne’s convincing performance, but providing little in the way of back-story. He lives on a run-down farm with his brother-in-law, Mark Addy in his usual sure-footed role of ‘best-friend’, a stark counterpoint to the sumptuous home of his employer. Donald is being pursued for divorce by his angry wife, Gina McKee in a haggard and harassed brief cameo. There is some unresolved issue relating to their, probably deceased, daughter. Donald and Amber’s relationship is a potentially father and daughter surrogacy, Donald is defensive and uncomfortable when Amber tries to flirt, and his relationship with Miriam is even more paternal.
Amber herself seems to undergo a personality change early in the film, when we first see her, trying on her seduction-kit anticipating Demi’s arrival, and in her early scenes with Donald she is more ‘Yorkshire’, almost brazen, referring to the chauffeur as an ‘arsehole’ for refusing to let her take anything from the love-nest. There seems to be a disconnect between the Amber who has entered into a relationship with Demi, apparently to have her legal career funded, although there appears to have been real affection, and the high-minded woman battling to save her sister from an arranged marriage. Still, people are complicated, and Sibylla Deen’s performance is never less than convincing.
A difficult and daring film then, elements of the Muslim community being shown in an uncompromising light. Amber is vilified by her family but the men-folk are shown to be hypocritical, not only KD and his associates but also Amber’s father, seen at one point chugging down supermarket vodka and gambling in a back-alley. I must admit the first half-hour made me squirm, those wishy-washy liberal sensitivities again, but once the film itself had settled down, and thanks in no small part to Deen’s performance, I thought it was a valiant effort.
Interestingly, this is writer-director Mitu Misra’s first foray into film-making, funded by his success in business. It’s a very professional-looking debut, helped by a brilliant cast and the contribution of cinematographer Santosh Sivan. Misra and his producers did very well assembling the team and capturing Byrne was a real coup. I first saw Gabriel Byrne in Excalibur (1981), riding across a bridge made of Nicol Williamson’s breath to impregnate the mother of the future Arthur Pendragon, while never taking his armour off. Byrne has something of the tragic flavour that made the great James Mason a matinee idol, born into a different era he might have enjoyed a similar starry trajectory, although he has hardly done badly.
Byrne was a natural fit for Lord Byron in Ken Russell’s ludicrous Gothic (1986). Unlikely now to become an action-hero like his compatriot Liam Neeson, Byrne has had his share of tough-guy roles. He was the heart and soul of The Usual Suspects (1995), a film that perhaps needs some reassessment since Kevin Spacey has been revealed as a real-life Keyser Söze, albeit with a different level of predation. He was the lead with Albert Finney in Miller’s Crossing (1990), a film many critics consider the Coen brothers’ best, but which I found to be turgid in the extreme. Byrne won great acclaim as therapist Paul Weston in HBO’s In Treatment (2008-10). In interviews, director Mitu Misra says Byrne was fastidious in his examination of the script, a level of professionalism evident in his performance.
Clunky, pretentious, unconvincing - these are just some of the epithets I’ve seen attached to this film in other reviews, which is a shame, as it’s not that bad, and certainly not a bad effort from a first-time film-maker. There are the usual slew of DVD extras, deleted scenes, cast and crew interviews, behind the scenes footage, and some audience interviews from the premiere, where they liked it.