“The Good Liar” is a great movie title, no question about it. At first, it might seem a bit generic, even bland, especially for a film that features two titans of the acting world; but as the story progresses and more revelations emerge about its characters, the title keeps returning to mind as an invitation to ponder its significance.
It’s deceptively simple, deliberately non-descriptive. It tells us little about what we are going to see but prompts us to ponder the multiple shades of meaning wrapped within it. Which character does it refer to, and in what sense? Does it mean someone who is good at lying or someone who is lying for a good reason? And what makes that reason good?
It’s important to call attention to the title of this new film from director Bill Condon, not just because it subtly encourages the kind of emotionally detached intellectual curiosity the movie requires of us, but also because it’s one of the few aspects of “The Good Liar” that can be discussed without spoilers – and “The Good Liar” is the kind of film for which the phrase “no spoilers please” was invented.
What can be safely said by way of set-up is that the movie centers on Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen), an elderly con artist who specializes in high-stakes financial swindles. He targets Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), a well-off widow he finds on an Internet dating site, and begins to cultivate a relationship with the intention of gaining access to her considerable bank account. As he gets to know her, he finds himself having feelings for her – but will it be enough to stop him from taking everything she has and leaving her penniless and alone? Things are complicated by her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey), who doesn’t trust him, and a disgruntled former mark (Mark Lewis Jones) out to settle the score.
Adapted from a novel by Nicholas Searle, Condon’s movie teams him for the third time with McKellen, who starred as “Frankenstein” director James Whale in the pair’s first collaboration, “Gods and Monsters” (1998). That Oscar-winning film – a story about an out gay director made by an out gay filmmaker and an out gay actor – became revered by fans who recognized it as a queer classic. Their second project together, 2015’s “Mr. Holmes,” about the later years of the famous fictional detective, was well reviewed but failed to match the popularity of the previous effort.
This time, they are joined by the always-luminescent Mirren, her co-star’s fellow British acting legend and one of the few people able to bring as much gravitas to a character as he does. The trio makes a formidable team, unsurprisingly, and their combined talents make the movie deliciously engaging from start to finish.
That’s fortunate, because in terms of story, “The Good Liar” needs that powerhouse quality in order to sell itself to an audience. In keeping with the sense of nostalgia that has been at the heart of the previous Condon/McKellen teamings, it’s a movie that evokes a certain type of film that was almost a subgenre of its own in the seventies and eighties: clever, literate, two-or-three character thrillers like “Sleuth” or “Deathtrap,” which teased and toyed with viewers by winding their way through multiple plot twists on the way to a surprise ending. Like those films, Condon’s movie puts old-school master thespians in front of the camera to do the heavy lifting in a kind of intellectual-roller-coaster experience as we try to figure out just exactly what is going on. Also like those older movies, it cheats – the whole idea of ‘psyching out’ an audience requires a certain amount of dishonesty in presenting information, so it’s inevitable that important clues will be withheld before the final solution to the mystery – usually a far-fetched one – is revealed. It’s built into the design.
The difference is that those older films acknowledged their own inherent silliness – they had, almost, a sense of camp, with excellent performances that were nevertheless over-the-top and an unapologetic embrace of the ludicrous at their core. Though there was murder afoot, it was ultimately all meant to be good fun. “The Good Liar” can’t get away with that – again, to avoid spoilers, all that can be said is that it goes dark, very dark – and doesn’t leave quite as satisfying a taste as those pulpy cinema “classics” of the past.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a great ride. The two stars, who have worked together before onstage, are as superb together as one would expect; their chemistry is palpable, and the skill with which they manage the delicate balance of truthfulness in performance with the necessity for not giving anything away is a delight to behold. McKellen, a master of crafty contrast, uses his ability to wrap the most venal of characters into the cloak of benign elderly sweetness to great advantage, so that Roy stirs our empathy no matter how unscrupulous we fear he may turn out to be. Mirren has, arguably, the more challenging role to fulfill, in that she must play her hand closer to the chest; since the narrative centers from Roy’s point of view, we cannot know what she knows or what she feels until it’s time for us to know it. She pulls it off flawlessly.
As for the remaining cast, a younger generation of career British thespians is represented by gay heartthrob Tovey, whose performance must walk a similar tightrope to Mirren’s; he, too acquits himself admirably, while incidentally providing the movie’s only directly queer content – the nature of which (again, no spoilers) you’ll have to wait to find out. There’s also Jim Carter (Mr. Carson of “Downton Abbey” fame), who manages to make himself memorable among these heavy-hitters as Roy’s shadowy “associate,” and the blustery Lewis as their haplessly boorish former mark.
Thanks to its players, “The Good Liar” provides exactly the kind of gripping entertainment it sets out to deliver, even if its slow-reveal tactics can’t quite hide the over-arching implausibility of its story, or the thorny darkness of the twisted path on which it takes us undercuts its sense of fun.
And if Condon’s movie leaves us feeling thrilled but vaguely cheated, it’s not inappropriate for a film full of lies, populated by liars, and ultimately about the long-reaching consequences of lies. Like the con man at its center, the filmmaker is running a “long game,” and we go willingly along with him like lambs to the slaughter.
In a way, maybe that makes Bill Condon the best liar of them all.