It might not break the mold, but there's a depth and undercurrent of darkness to the exquisitely-acted Good Liar that makes it electrifying to watch.
Nobody takes the story for a con artist movie at face value; the idea of plot twists and turns are inherent to the sub-genre. The Good Liar seems to understand this all too well and starts dropping big hints early on, making it clear that something is amiss, and practically taunting audiences to figure it out ahead of time. It takes a while for the movie to fully kick into gear all the same, but it's hard to complain too much when you have two masters of their craft in Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren manning the ship. It might not break the mold, but there's a depth and undercurrent of darkness to the exquisitely-acted Good Liar that makes it electrifying to watch.
McKellen and Mirren star in The Good Liar as Roy Courtnay and Betty McLeish, two lonely old English people who meet through a dating service (in 2009) before crossing paths and entering a relationship in the real world. Except, of course, Roy isn't who he says he is; in reality, he's a con artist who quickly deduces that Betty is sitting on a fortune, and conspires to get close enough to her to steal it. But in doing so, Roy begins to develop real feelings for Betty, much to the concern of his accomplice Vincent (Jim Carter). And if that wasn't enough, Betty's not so trusting grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) continues to snoop around Roy, clearly suspicious of this gentlemanly stranger who's just invited himself into her life.
Adapting the novel by Nicholas Searle, The Good Liar writer Jeffrey Hatcher and director Bill Condon (both of whom worked with McKellen on Mr. Holmes) slowly, but steadily set the important pieces into place over the course of the film's first half, prior to the dramatic reveals that, naturally, unfold throughout the second. But what makes The Good Liar riveting isn't the mystery (which, like all well-crafted riddles, can be partly unraveled ahead of time if one tries hard enough), but the underlying themes. Without spoiling anything, it's fair to say the film is interested in history and why some people always have to live with the past, even while others - usually, the worst kind of privileged - are able to dismiss it as over and done, and move on with their lives. It's a fascinating question, and The Good Liar is willing to go to some nasty places to examine how memory and trauma truly impact people's lives.
Likewise, The Good Liar reminds everyone that McKellen is just as great at playing despicable men who hide behind a pleasant facade as he is at playing morally-complicated mutants and loveable wizards. Both he and Mirren bring their A-game to the table here, making it all the more difficult to get a read on their characters and decipher when they're being sincere, deceitful, or a cross between the two (and, just as importantly, why they're acting that way). It's all the more exciting to watch the two finally share the screen in a suspenseful cat and mouse game like The Good Liar too, as opposed to a drama where, say, one of them has a terminal disease or condition. The Good Liar acknowledges their ages and the challenges that come with being in your twilight years, but again, it's really about something else altogether.
Whether you're able to figure them out or not, The Good Liar's twists are in service of its overarching themes and succeed in making you question who you should or shouldn't be rooting for, as more of the truth is brought to light. Obviously, they require some suspension of disbelief, and the film as a whole isn't crafty or subversive enough to truly upend the conventions of the con artist movie, but they pack a punch all the same. It helps that Condon remains a skillful craftsman behind the camera, bringing a Hitchockian approach to the proceedings in terms of his camerawork and sense of atmosphere. He's aided by his cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler and composer Carter Burwell, both of whom are trusted collaborators whose visuals and music set the tone for this noir-ish slow-burn thrill ride.
Given the caliber of talent involved on all sides of the camera, though, some people might be reasonably disappointed to learn that The Good Liar - when push comes to shove - is a rock-solid genre movie, but a genre movie all the same. That may partly account for the lack of buzz around the film right now; with so many award-winners or nominees in the cast and crew, The Good Liar seems like it should be a grand slam, as opposed to a very competent thriller geared towards mainstream adult audiences. For that same reason, however, The Good Liar is all the rarer a specimen in the current market and deserving of a look on the big screen. After all, there are far worse ways to spend your time than watching McKellen and Mirren square off for two hours.
The Good Liar is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 109 minutes long and is rated R for some strong violence, and for language and brief nudity.
- The Good Liar (2019) release date: Nov 15, 2019