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Lies We Tell review - fear and gaslighting in 1860s Ireland | reviews, news & interviews

Lies We Tell review - fear and gaslighting in 1860s Ireland

Lies We Tell review - fear and gaslighting in 1860s Ireland

An uncle plays cat and mouse with his heiress niece in a taut melodrama

Come into the garden, Maud: Agnes O'Casey in 'Lies We Tell'Break Out Pictures

It is 1864 and the lush green lawns of Knowl, the stately home in Ireland that Maud Ruthyn (Agnes O’Casey) will inherit when she reaches the age of 21, are beautifully kept. Everything is in its place. Maud expects deference, especially from the domestic staff.

Maud is a steely character, so when the trustees of her late father’s estate advise her to go against the terms of his will and appoint them as trustees to her fortune, she instantly suspects them of being on the make. They are merely trying to warn her that her wily Uncle Silas (David Wilmot, pictured below), a suspected murderer, is “hardly a fit person” to be her guardian. Maud's mind is set, however. She is as dismissive of their advice as she is disdainful towards them. Naturally, as it quickly turns out, they prove to be right. 

When Silas does move in to Knowl, Maud mollifies him, telling him he has been maligned. They are are amiable, even jokey with each other. But it isn't long before Silas's mask slips, his complicit smiles disappearing as trust evaporates and a battle of wills between orphaned teenager and scheming uncle ensues with frightening intensity.

Silas brings with him a motley crew of acolytes and co-conspirators: his odious son Edward (Chris Walley), his wacko daughter Emily (Holly Sturton), and a deeply sinister governess, Madame (Grainne Keenan). Together they work on undermining Maud’s sanity and her rights to inherit. She may be determined, but they make her doubt everything. 

Lisa Mulcahy’s Lies We Tell, scripted by Elisabeth Gooch, is the latest of many film and TV adaptations of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1864 novel Uncle Silas, A Tale of Bartram Haugh. Back in 1989, the BBC series The Dark Angel, starring Peter O’Toole and Beatie Ednie, was hailed as the "definitive" version. No chance: Le Fanu's novel is a gift that keeps on giving, fertile ground for further re-imagining.

Mulcahy and Gooch’s version is a very free adaptation of just some of the sections of the book. Concentration and distillation have given a real tautness to the plotting. There is also an updating – feminist tropes run through the script. The focus of Lies We Tell is completely on Maud, who scarcely leaves the screen. The action stays at Knowl, claustrophobically photographed (mostly at Ardgillan Castle in Co. Dublin) by Eleanor Bowman.

Mulcahy has placed enormous trust in O’Casey, whom she previously directed in Ridley Road and who also appears in this week's The Miracle Club. The Finsbury Park-born great-grandaughter of the Irish playwight Seán O'Casey carries the weight of Lies We Tell's drama remarkably well.

The film's strength is its patient, cunning building of irresistible crackling tension as cruelty and fear become the dominant forces. This is achieved with such wonderful pacing that the denouement, when it comes, inevitably seems a bit rushed. That said, Lies We Tell is a hughly recommendable gaslighting melodrama.

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