Gabriel Byrne moves pensively, wearily, through Mitu Misra’s “Lies We Tell,” as though through a much better film. For a time, as the doggedly loyal chauffeur and secret-keeper of a rich boss, dunking his dialogue into a comfy Northern England accent like a Custard Cream into a mug of tea, he almost convinces the audience, too. But very much to its detriment, Misra’s ambitious, overflowing soap opera of a debut is not content with being the character portrait that Byrne’s inherently interesting Donald deserves. It’s not even a particularly colored-in sketch of Amber (promising newcomer Sibylla Deen), the headstrong young Pakistani Muslim woman Donald befriends as she gets trapped between old-country tradition and mean-streets modernity in contemporary Bradford.
Instead the undeniably enthusiastic Indian-born, U.K.-raised Misra has the tourist-like, pent-up voracity of the first-time filmmaker. There’s a slew of racial, gender, and religious issues he needs to snapshot, a handful of headline-grabbing true stories he wants to sample and a grand itinerary of genres he wants to visit, and who knows if he’ll ever get more than these paltry 110 minutes to do it in? Something’s got to give, and unfortunately it’s narrative coherence and character consistency, rather than any of the superfluous subplots, that get the chop. Misra spent a decade working on this project, but the years have clearly been engaged in accretion rather than sculpture, and the resultant script, co-written with Ewen Glass and Andy McDermott, is arthritic with overplotting.
Donald is introduced waiting while his wealthy employer Demi (Harvey Keitel in a role so small he may have shot it on another gig’s lunch break) has one of his regular extramarital assignations. “The only men who get caught,” Demi tells Donald with a rueful clap on the back, “are those who don’t love their wives enough.” Or, apparently, those who don’t have a faithful retainer to cover up for them — by the next scene Demi is dead and Donald is off to strip his shag-pad apartment of any evidence of infidelity. But Demi’s beautiful young lover Amber (Deen), who has not heard of Demi’s death, shows up, puts on a record and some sexy lingerie, before encountering Donald in a hallway.
So far, so film noir: There’s a blue-collar driver, a dead rich guy, and a femme fatale. But the Yorkshire Raymond Chandler vibe soon dissipates. Despite the uncute-ness of their meet cute, the kindly Donald becomes rather unconvincingly embroiled in Amber’s personal life. There’s a lot of it to get embroiled in: Not only was she the clandestine mistress of a married man, she’s an aspiring lawyer who only got her job through Demi’s connections, and her willful nature puts her at odds with her traditionalist parents, developmentally challenged brother, pious younger sister, and the more superstitious element in her Muslim community. And her violent ex-husband KD (the handsome Jan Uddin), whom she was forced to marry when they were both just 16, is now a local gangster, who procures women for his sleazy boss, and has impregnated a trashy local white girl, inevitably called Tracey (Emily Atack). Tracey has it in for Amber, not letting her swelling belly get in the way of giving her a good kicking in a park.
Donald has his own problems, including a recent separation from his wife (Gina McKee, who appears, is menaced and disappears in the space of time it takes you to remember her name), a frosty relationship with Demi’s callow son and heir, even a dead child. Much of this would be fine as backstory whispered into an actor’s ear for motivation, but here every storyline, no matter how unilluminating, gets its expository moment. Donald and his portly brother-in-law Billy (a genial, countrified Mark Addy) pass a whole scene finding, arguing over, then flying, a kite that belonged to “our Amy.” The audience scrambles to work out that Amy is the dead daughter, information which immediately becomes obsolete. It feels tacky, to have this little creature summoned into existence and then snuffed out just so we can read more pain into Byrne’s careworn face, even if she is fictional.
Byrne and Deen are not the only participants committing too much of their talent to material that doesn’t quite warrant it. When the director’s soapier instincts insist on a slow zoom to a lingering closeup, Indian cinematographer Santosh Sivan’s otherwise glossy, polished camerawork seems reluctant to oblige. There’s less resistance to the heightened theatrics from composer Zbigniew Preisner, though. Here the celebrated Kieslowski collaborator is in weirdly obvious form: If music could be a platitude, this would be the “it’s the thought that counts” of scores.
“Lies We Tell” tells quite a few lies, but perhaps its poster is the biggest whopper. In gunmetal blue-grey shades, above block capitals spelling out the unearned tagline “The Truth Can Kill,” a shotgun-toting Gabriel Byrne glares menacingly off-screen. It makes this overstuffed season of daytime TV look like a riff on “Taken” or one of those anonymous Nic Cage revenge thrillers. Worse still, when there’s so much promising material in the culture-clash setting and the mismatched (and gratifyingly platonic) friendship at the core of all this busy-ness, it makes you kind of wish it was one.