June Butler reviews Lisa Mulcahy’s Lies We Tell based on the novel Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu.
It is the year 1864 and a young woman, Maud Ruthyn (Agnes O’Casey), makes her way to a line of graves through the leafy coolness of a wooded glen. Atmospherically eerie with cawing and chattering crows in the distance, there is a sense of watchful eyes witnessing the scene unfold. Maud is dressed in mourning, and with gentle fingers tracing the letters of an inscribed bronzed plate dedicated to her father, she places a delicate garland of ivy on top of the plaque. She pauses in pensive sorrow, turns and then slowly walks a grassy path back to Knowl, her ancestral home.
Newly bereaved and an only child, Maud is stricken with grief over the recent death of her father. Her mother died some years earlier. With her father’s demise, Maud has inherited a vast amount of money, enough to make her a most eligible prospect to a wealth-driven suitor. She meets with the trustees of her father’s estate who attempt to give her financial and practical advice. The unctuous Dr. Bryerly (Mark Doherty), and fellow guardian Captain Ilbury (Kieran Roche), urge Maud to accept their well-meaning offers of assistance but she bats their suggestions away with disdain. Dr. Bryerly is prim and punctilious. Captain Ilbury is rather more timid and ill at ease with the line of action proposed by his partner – nonetheless, both are united in their efforts at protecting Maud and her inheritance. The primary concern of Bryerly and Ilbury is that Maud’s Uncle Silas, has been awarded sole authority over her person and property. He is a known dissolute, inveterate gambler and person of ill repute. Rumours abound that he is also a murderer. They entreat Maud to consider how her uncle’s presence should he move into her home, could taint her reputation but Maud remains undaunted.
Some days later Uncle Silas (David Wilmot), along with his son Edward (Chris Walley), daughter Emily (Holly Sturton), and mysterious French governess ‘Madame’ (Grainne Keenan), arrive at Knowl. They quickly make themselves at home and feign a friendly attachment to Maud who is quiet and cautious in her dealings with the group. However, first impressions are worrisome – Uncle Silas encourages Edward to kiss his cousin on the cheek. Edward moves to embrace his cousin, but Maud proffers her hand to shake his instead. The implications of Maud’s apparent rejection of Edward do not go unnoticed. Uncle Silas carefully observes Maud, narrows his eyes, indicating that her show of wilfulness has been met with quiet anger. It is a sign of things to come.
With measured cadence, tension mounts as the group of four interlopers begin to exert their power over Maud. It soon becomes evident that the ever-vigilant Uncle Silas as supreme puppet master, has set his sights on Maud’s fortune. Edward, Silas’s witless son, indicates that he is romantically interested in Maud and goes on to make a blunt and aggressively cynical marriage proposal – with the demands and sense of urgency emanating from her Uncle’s need to get his hands on ready cash in order to fend off a looming appointment with gambling creditors. Maud defiantly rejects the scheme yet still believes that she has the upper hand. Bit by bit, as subtle freedoms are eliminated and denied to Maud, she comes to realise that liberty is an illusion, and all avenues of safety are rapidly disappearing. As each day dawns, the danger from Edward and Silas grows ever greater. Soon Silas has enlisted the support of Maud’s housekeepers, Mr. Rusk (John Olohan), Mrs. Rusk (Eleanor Methven), and maidservant Mary Quince (Elaine O Dwyer). The trio rapidly switch allegiances when faced with the prospect of losing their sole source of employment and therefore income.
Personal safety and wellbeing for women in nineteenth century Ireland (and indeed the Western World), was negligible. It was even more dire for girls and young women under the age of twenty-one. The legal age of consent to sexual relations in 1864 was 12. It was the same for marriage – although for both boys and girls, parental or guardian permission to wed was required if they were under the benchmark age. Small wonder therefore that no protests were raised when the American writer, Edgar Allan Poe, at the age of 27, married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia Eliza Clemm in 1836 and remained married to her until she died 11 years later. A legal guardian could subject women and girls under his protection into almost any level of manipulation. Under the law, resistance to such efforts could be met with serious and often life threatening ‘cures’ – as time elapses, Maud becomes aware that she has no legal recourse to protest the conditions in which she finds herself. Legal loopholes are there to be exploited by her Uncle and used against her. Potential champions and even members of her own sex, have melted into the background and Maud must find the strength to outwit her malfeasant persecutors.
David Wilmot as Uncle Silas steers a steady course with committed determination. He is the perfect blend of initial fawning obsequiousness combined with a willingness to veer towards veiled threats when events do not go as planned. Edward Ruthyn, his son, is an ignoble and vainglorious dolt – a fool who blindly follows his father’s lead regardless of logic. Emily simpers and scampers through the chaotic maelstrom while Madame views the scene with quietly menacing gravitas. Every character seems to be slowly circling around Maud as her options dissipate and safety becomes elusive.
Ardgillan Castle in County Dublin, Lough Rynn Castle in County Leitrim and The Ulster American Folk Park in County Tyrone laid claim to the stunning locations used for the film. The sounds of Maud’s footsteps pacing the old wooden floors, descending stone steps of stairs, walking through dusty cellars, the clank and slam of wooden doors – the attention to detail was unending and mesmerising.
Agnes O Casey in the role of Maud, is the key character holding the plot together and every scene she is in, makes for utterly compelling viewing. Maud’s understanding of her predicament is overlaid with unwavering and sometimes humorous resolve. Close-ups of Maud struggling with feelings as her emotions wax and wane, are the mark of an actress with far more accolades under her belt. The fact that O Casey has this level of ability in her arsenal at this age, is astonishing indeed.
Screenwriter Elizabeth Gooch took J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s original gothic masterpiece, Uncle Silas, and made it her own. She did so with panache and confidence.
Director Lisa Mulcahy has firmly placed herself at the helm of storytelling mastery. Lies We Tell manifests itself as a tale of visual flawlessness and immersive beauty.
Lies We Tell is in cinemas from 13th October 2023.