The Good Liar
2019, R, 109 min. Directed by Bill Condon. Starring Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Mark Lewis Jones, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 22, 2019
I could watch Dame Helen Mirren and Sir Ian McKellen interact in virtually any situation and come away immensely satisfied. A perfect example of this was seeing the two of them reading a snippet of the transcript of President Trump’s phone call to Ukrainian President Zelensky on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert last week. Prompted by their host, the pair performed their lines “casually,” “happily,” “innocently,” and so on. Ultimately, Mirren noted that there was really no other way to emote the line any other way but “guiltily,” a state which is much in evidence in director Condon’s lightweight but still dramatically satiating adaptation of bestseller Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel The Good Liar, which teases out a longer than expected con only to pull a delectably dark switcheroo in the third act. Talk about cinematic whiplash, boy howdy.
The film opens with an arch credits sequence intercut with shots of well-to-do widower Betty McLeish (Mirren) and mischievous smoothie Roy Courtnay (McKellen) meeting cute over an online dating app. As in reality, the pair prevaricate; she sips Chablis while typing “No” to the question “Do you drink alcohol” while he does likewise, inhaling a Nat Sherman but denying a craving for nicotine on his profile. When the two meet for dinner IRL, these little white lies become a sort of bonding fodder to be laughed over. The following scene has them taking in a screening of Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist history lesson Inglourious Basterds of all things, one of many semi-subtle clues foreshadowing a progressive tightening of the suspense that underlies the entire film.
Soon enough we discover that Roy is a professional swindler who, along with his partner in crime Vincent (Carter), is out to divest Betty of her not inconsiderable life savings. However, there’s a spanner in the works in the form of Betty’s son Stephen (Tovey), a collegiate history major who immediately senses a fox in the proverbial henhouse but whose protestations – almost overnight Roy ingratiates his way into the seemingly gullible Betty’s spare bedroom – are just as quickly shot down by his mother. All is not as it seems, though, and to say much more about The Good Liar’s actual plot would spoil the film’s wicked sense of gallows humor.
It’s enough to note that the interplay between Mirren and McKellen, in their first time sharing the screen together, is tremendous fun. About as far away from Gandalf the Grey as you can get, McKellen plays Roy as a sort of hybrid of Michael Caine in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the Michael Caine of Harry Brown, all the while keeping the character compellingly McKellen. Director Condon first came to critical acclaim with 1998’s fantastical Gods and Monsters, which also starred McKellen (as Frankenstein director James Whale), and so it’s gratifying to see the two work together in a film filled with nearly as many secrecies and sordid revelations. Apart from that, The Good Liar is a pleasantly playful thriller hiding a seriously shady history close to its benighted heart.