Lies We Tell (UK 2017)

I saw this new British title at the Keighley Picture House where every third Sunday there is a Film Club. The film is set in Bradford with scenes also shot in Keighley. So it sounded interesting enough to train over from Leeds to see.

It opens in mainstream style as we see Harvey Keitel as Demi Lampros driven by Gabriel Byrne as chauffeur Donald. This is about all we see of Keitel; a little later Gina McKee has a similar walk-on part as Donald’s separated wife Heather. These cameos suggest something of the snapshot quality of the film.

The basic plots involves Donald having to cover up evidence of an extra-marital affair after Demi suddenly dies. The other partner of the affair is Amber (Sibylla Deen), a trainee lawyer and the older daughter of a traditional Muslim family from Pakistan. Donald and Amber’s attempts to keep the affair secret are constantly frustrated by an escalating wave of fresh complications. Some of these revolve round her family but most involve her ex-husband KD (Jan Uddin). Whilst KD pays lip-service to the mores of the Muslim community he is involved in some form of gangsterism which involves drugs and prostitution. In addition to an earlier arranged marriage and divorce with Amber, she was also the victim of marital rape, KD now has a Caucasian girlfriend pregnant. And he is planning to marry Amber’s younger sister Miriam (Danica Johnson).

It should be apparent that the title has an over-complicated plot line. At times it seems like a film noir but at others an inversion of East is East (1999). I did find the plot at times rather difficult to follow, partly because I found some of dialogue unclear. The film includes Urdu dialogue which does not have English sub-titles. Just to give one example, I was never clear if Amber and KD had actually had a legal marriage or a legal divorce: I had to check this in the Sight & Sound plot synopsis.

The plot-line is made more difficult by the style of the production. The editing in particular tends to jump from one event to another, not always allowing complete clarity. So we cut from the Demi and Donald in the car in the evening following a tryst to a helicopter landing at the his palatial mansion to take his coffin home; [the synopsis explains that will be Greece]. Later Amber is attacked in the street by two young women; one is Tracey (Emily Atack), KD’s pregnant girlfriend. The other is a young Asian woman who appears to be part of Amber’s extended family. I was never clear why the latter assisted Tracy in this fairly violent assault.

Within this rather muddled presentation the cast are generally good. Sibylla Deen as Amber is excellent and Gabriel Byrne’s world-weary Donald is convincing. In addition we have Mark Addy as Billy, his brother-in-law and house mate, providing some lighter relief. They also share the house with Cinders, a bouncy terrier who is impregnated by the neighbouring Rottweiler resulting in one or more puppies, more Rottweiler than terrier. But the supporting cast struggle with poorly written characterisations. KD in particular is a fairly stereotypical villain and the Muslim Elders are equally stereotyped.

This was directed by Mitu Misra, a first time film-maker who also wrote the story. The script is by Ewen Glass and Andy McDermott. The production company is Bradford International Film Associates, which I suspect is a company set up to develop this project. My sense is that there has not been a lot of involvement by more experienced Asian or Muslim artists. I was interested to note that the accompanying music was by Zbgniew Preisner; the well-known Polish composer. I make this point because I found the whole production unremittingly stereotypical. Apart from a few key characters most of the people are unsympathetic. There is a sense of a conflict between the younger and older generations in the Muslim community but predominately both groups are treated unsympathetically. In contrast, with the exception of Amber, who embraces western values, just about all the positive characters are Caucasian; including another cameo with Nicholas Farrell as Amber’s sympathetic boss .There are a number of Muslim rituals and community tropes broadly presented in a negative manner. As you can guess the plot leads to Amber trying to escape from her community. This the motif that figures in films set in Third World countries as western protagonists flee the chaos. Transposing that to a migrant community in Britain seems to me fairly reactionary.

On the surface the theme is ‘the devastating ripples of secrets and lies’ but it does spend most of its time on cultural politics. So I think it really fails to dramatise in an effective way the contradictions that I suspect were the aims of the film-makers. A much better treatment of the problems faced by a young, modern woman from a Muslim community is Yasmin (2004), also set in and around Keighley. [The film was discussed in an article in the printed ITP World April 2005].

However I was glad that I saw this. Watching the treatment of such a story was interesting and the film looks fine, shot digitally in colour and in the 2.35:1 ratio. There was also pleasure in watching familiar settings in Bradford. However these also have anachronisms, one shot at the Keighley Railway Station shows a steam locomotive, part of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway; why would any of the characters be boarding this train?

I was also glad because it gave me an opportunity to visit the Keighley Picture House. They have a rather good main auditorium and a smaller but pleasant upstairs auditorium where the Film Club screenings take place. This is another of these welcome traditional cinemas that are part of the Northern Morris chain.

One comment

  1. Roy Stafford

    I saw the Keighley station scene that you refer to being filmed. I think I assumed it was a flashback to the days of steam – but that would have been 50 years ago.

    The filmmaker is a Bradford man in his late 50s who made a pile with his double-glazing company and financed the film himself. He wrote the script after a short course, I think, but didn’t have any directing experience. You don’t mention that the great Santosh Sivan is the cinematographer. The Guardian ran a piece on the background to the production: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/feb/01/lies-we-tell-how-a-bradford-double-glazing-salesman-got-harvey-keitel-to-star-in-his-debut-film

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