The Plot: Ireland, 1864. Following the death of her beloved father, young Maud (Agnes O’Casey) is not yet of age. Isolated in her mansion, she comes under the guardianship of her uncle Silas (David Wilmot), a severe man who was once suspected of murder. That has passed though and now he sees an opportunity for both himself, his caddish son Edward (Chris Walley) and timid daughter Emily (Holly Sturton) to take their supposedly rightful place in society. This will be accomplished by living with the young heiress and marrying Edward to her, though this lady’s not for turning. She has something else in mind…
The Verdict: ‘What makes a monster?’ asks the opening narration in Lies We Tell. Must it always be some supernatural being or can it be clothed in human flesh? What lies do we tell to convince ourselves otherwise? By the end of the film, there is an answer. Between those well-appointed bookends is a poised period piece involving dark family secrets and the confines of Victorian society, as filtered through an Irish lense. There is also a tinge of the gothic, a not unsurprising development considering that it’s based on the 1864 book Uncle Silas by the celebrated Irish author J. Sheridan Le Fanu. His landmark novel Carmilla was of course the basis for a memorable trilogy from Hammer Films in the 1970s. While there are no sapphic vampires in Lies We Tell, there are monsters of the human variety working on their own greedy ends and attempting to suck the life out of a young and forthright heiress.
Adapted by Elisabeth Gooch, Lies We Tell is an austere and autumnal film. It sets out its stall by staying in just one location – but what a location in the stately surroundings of Ardgillan Castle in Dublin. It evokes a moody atmosphere while keeping the period detail in check. The confines of the setting are also a metaphor for the confines of the society and true to the period detail, the cruelty of its time towards women who might be regarded as ‘hysterical’ and two doctors away from being committed. For that is where we find the orphaned Maud, as she navigates the initially welcome presence of her uncle and his family to her home. He sees a partnership between them to guide her inheritance and allow her to become known to the outside world as she reaches the age of majority. Maud is quite content with her standing though. Events turn sour when a power struggle develops and this is where director Lisa Mulcahy focuses her camera as the plot thickens.
Newcomer Agnes O’Casey instantly marks herself out as a name to watch. Creative talent flows in her family – her great-grandfather was the playwright Sean O’Casey. In what appears to be a fortunate scheduling quirk, she also appears in The Miracle Club released on the same day as this film. That’s one way to announce yourself on the world stage. She more than holds her own against established actors like the intense David Wilmot, portraying a strong-willed woman railing against the expected conventions of her restrictive time. Thankfully though, Mulcahy doesn’t feel the need to modernise the story by giving it a 21st Century perspective (a common fault in period pieces these days). Instead, she focuses on a series of increasingly fraught events that test Maud’s character as she comes under attack from more than one front.
It makes for a deeply involving story of dark family secrets coming up to the surface and an evolving game of wits. Mulcahy’s focused direction is lean, stripping the story back to its essentials and ensuring that each scene has meaning and furthers the narrative. It grips from the opening moments and then gradually accelerates as events take a sinister turn. This is not an airless period piece with an expected wedding at the end. It plays out as a suspenseful drama, driven by Aza Hand’s evocative music and lush cinematography by Eleanor Bowman. There is a careful, refined quality to the filmmaking which bypasses predictability and turns the narrative around to its rightful place without coming across as forced. Lies We Tell is truthful to itself about its period characters while being a great night at the cinema too. Recommended.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Lies We Tell
Lies We Tell (Ireland / 16 / 89 mins)
In short: Suspenseful
Directed by Lisa Mulcahy.
Starring Agnes O'Casey, David Wilmot, Chris Walley, Holly Sturton, Grainne Keenan, Mark Doherty.