The Good Liar Review

The Good Liar is the latest entry in a slowly expanding subgenre best known as They Don’t Make Movies Like This Anymore dramas. In a time of infinite intellectual property, of franchises and sequels and reboots, The Good Liar is a small oasis in a cinematic desert where once there was more frequent life. This literary adaptation is a nasty little thriller, anchored by two elder-statesmen performers whose presence alone likely willed this film into existence. It’s not without its flaws, but The Good Liar has enough charm and is fresh enough by dint of being so different from what the rest of the multiplex has to offer.

Ian McKellen stars as Roy, a wily old con artist who succeeds in his life by swindling people out of reasonable, but not exorbitant amounts of cash. He and his accountant friend (Jim Carter of Downton Abbey) mostly truck along by staging raids, promising windfalls based on shady offshore real-estate deals, and not much else. Into Roy’s life enters Betty (Helen Mirren), a widow and ex-professor at Oxford who seems like the perfect mark: she’s friendly and lonely, with only a suspicious grandson (Russell Tovey) hanging around, and with a savings account worth millions. 

That there are twists afoot should go without saying; any story that includes a con artist among its main characters is bound to be designed with a few storytelling rugs to be pulled out at the opportune moment. The Good Liar, based on the novel of the same name by Nicholas Searle, is framed both by screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher and director Bill Condon (a long way from his Beauty and the Beast remake from 2017) in such a way to heighten the potential thrills. If there is a disadvantage, it’s not that the surprises in store are predictable – they decidedly aren’t. What is perhaps a bit expected is that there will be surprises, making each sidelong glance or lingering shot seem like a necessary piece in a puzzle that’s yet to be unlocked.

Even in those more telling moments, The Good Liar is boosted by its two lead performances. McKellen, despite being billed second, is arguably the protagonist; so much of the film is told from Roy’s point of view, with Betty being present from the start (the two of them having connected via an online dating service) as a figure of stability and domesticity in his life. It’s to McKellen’s credit that Roy is ever remotely likable and worthy of empathy and pathos. He’s a soulless type as willing to rob a man blind as he is to callously kill that man in broad daylight just to get away. Mirren – working with McKellen for the first time in a feature film – has an assured chemistry with her male counterpart, and plays the role of a less curious woman well. Perhaps the only issue there is that Helen Mirren is…well, Helen Mirren, an actress of impossible depth, erudition and intelligence, such that playing someone who’s less curious feels like a put-on in its own way.

But…well, to say more would be to begin ruining the story of The Good Liar, including how some of the later twists raise a few too many concerns of implausibility. We’re asked to believe a great deal of Roy before eventually learning that his has been a limited point of view. (Again, to delve further is to delve into genuine spoiler territory.) Where the story lands is satisfying, even though McKellen’s multi-dimensionality as a performer is such that Roy never is quite so villainous for much of the running time, in spite of being a career thief. 

Condon is vastly more at home directing this English thriller than has been the case with a number of his recent efforts. (Aside from the sludgy Beauty and the Beast redo, he also directed the Julian Assange drama The Fifth Estate, a film that is best left forgotten after you read this sentence.) His sense of pacing and tension works well throughout, aided by McKellen’s modulated performance. Only when Roy begins to genuinely unravel after his well-thought-out plans start spinning away from him does it become clear how much actor and director have been in sync, keeping a firm balance on the story.

The Good Liar is likely going to appeal to an older crowd, or at least the kind of crowd as at home reading a good, pulpy mystery novel as watching another attempt at a franchise or expanded universe. This isn’t a perfect film, but it boasts two of the great legends of modern acting for just about two hours straight. Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren have separately hit greater heights, but watching them together in The Good Liar, it’s almost a shame that it took them so long to share the silver screen.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.