The Good Liar: A Charming, At Times Wobbly, Affair
A mystery thriller, The Good Liar works mostly because of Sir McKellen and Dame Mirren’s performances
In terms of genre, the mystery thriller has always been a seductive one. Whether it involves film noir detectives, international spies, Hitchcock-esque government conspiracies, or in The Good Liar’s case the archetypal cat and mouse chase, a well-executed mystery thriller by its very nature should captivate even though most cynical of audiences. There is romanticism to the genre; its meandering pace, intriguing characters and the inevitable plot twist. Adapted from a novel of the same name, The Good Liar is thoroughly watchable, despite its flaws, anchored by more than stellar performances by its two veteran leads, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen. Though not as dazzling as previous work (Dreamgirls, Chicago, Gods and Monster), director Bill Condon continues to impress with his knack for storytelling.
The story starts innocuous enough, as we witness two older people in 2009 chat on an internet dating site for seniors. There is a foreboding here; the smooth-talking gentleman Ray Courtnay (McKellen) reveals he does not give out his real name to acquaintances online, whilst the recently widowed Betty McLeish (Mirren) ticks off claims she is a non-drinker on her profile—both shortly after proved to be fallacies. The couple begin to develop a romantically ambiguous mostly platonic bond highlighted by Roy (who claims to have an estranged son) faking a knee injury and moving into the guest bedroom of Betty’s idyllic nest egg. The unlikely friendship induces suspicion in Betty’s overprotective grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) who seems to develop a pretty blatant disdain for Roy. We eventually learn that Roy, along with his business partner Vincent (Jim Carter), has made a handsome living out of conning wealthy people; in the film they are involved in some dodgy business schemes with shady-looking Eastern Europeans. Roy is a lifelong conman with seemingly very minimal remorse and preys on vulnerable elderly women. Betty for obvious reasons fits the bill. Several months, a trip to Berlin, World War II flashbacks and a stroke later, Betty agrees to transfer all her money into a shared bank account with Roy. Twists ensue.
The Good Liar is an easy target for overzealous critics with its various plot holes, elderly (not young and edgy) cast and recurring farfetchedness. Though the film is hardly Oscar-bait, it is definitely entertaining enough that you don’t feel compelled to glance at social media much in its two hour runtime. Obviously, the most memorable aspects of the film are Sir McKellen and Dame Mirren’s performances; two titanic English actors onscreen together for the first time. Their chemistry and wordplay are delightful (at times indulgent) and nostalgic. They are the backbone of the production; the film tends to lag when they aren’t onscreen. Furthermore, sinister themes such as Nazism, deception and rape are offset by the main characters’ age. The latter organically makes it a great deal lighter and even to a degree comical at times, since it isn’t typical material associated with geriatrics. McKellen’s version of Roy is so likeable that it’s hard to root against him; and given how the film ends the line between protagonist and antagonist gradually becomes blurred. Mirren does a convincing job playing Betty, the helpless and exceedingly naïve widow. Perhaps an overlooked character is the backdrop of London: its historic and recognizable streets, tube stations and architecture provides an element of grandeur to the story (Condon’s portrayal of the great city does not go unnoticed), there are even traces of Conan Doyle at some points.
The movie is hardly perfect. Betty—a retired Oxford professor sitting on a mountain of cash—does not always seem like a realistic victim. The insertion of cliché Russian mobsters feels B movie-ish. The finish line may leave many leaving the cinema feeling deceived and not in a particularly good way. Yet, despite it all, The Good Liar is a generally enjoyable mystery thriller and, because of its casting, accessible to many ages. Besides, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.
Words Daniel Mabanta
Art Alexandra Lara