When we first meet Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) and Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), they are on a first date, having met via an internet dating service. Roy quickly states that what he hates most in the world is dishonesty, and comes clean that he has given a false name to Betty until he is sure the date meets expectations. Betty admits the same. These deceptions are the first in the film, but they certainly won’t be the last.
Quickly sussing out that recently-widowed Betty has millions in savings, Roy, begins to circle his prey. He is a lifelong con-man who is by turns casually charming and viciously violent. Playing himself up as injured, he is invited into Betty’s house and rather quickly, deeper into her life as a whole. Betty seems happy, but her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is much less so. His suspicions grow when he finds out that Roy and his “financial advisor” Vincent (Jim Carter) are attempting to get Betty to invest her life savings in a joint account with Roy. Roy tells Vincent that he’s tired of a life of smaller scores and wants to land a big one before retiring to the beach, drink in hand.
Detailing the plot any further would only do a disservice to the film, which is full of twists and turns, some successful and some bordering on the outlandish. This indeed is where the film missteps, in portions of the writing. Perhaps it is more successful in the novel, which has more time to flesh things out, but here, the sheer volume of twists and new elements can sometimes serve as a distraction.
While the story is not always strong, the film does have a lot to recommend it. First and foremost are the performances. McKellen is particularly strong here, playing against type. While he does sometimes play the villain, even those characters tend to have a regal or classy quality (Richard III, Magneto, Leigh Teabing). In “The Good Liar”, Roy, despite his charm, is more of a traditional “bad guy” character. Even beyond his primary motivations of dishonesty and theft, he frequents strip clubs, curses heartily, and drinks and smokes heavily. It’s character work I’ve only seen McKellen do one other time, twenty years ago in “Apt Pupil”. By virtue of the story structure, Mirren is mostly sidelined through the early parts of the film. But as the story develops, she certainly gets her time to shine in the final act. Even if the rest of the film was terrible, which it certainly isn’t, seeing these two acting powerhouses on the screen together would be worth the price of admission.
On the technical side, Bill Condon does a fine job directing. In his and McKellen’s fourth collaboration (“Gods and Monsters”, “Mr. Holmes” and “Beauty and the Beast” being the previous three), he continues to be solid behind the camera. Never a flashy director, his style serves the story well, and he does include several strong shots to keep the viewer visually interested (one short hallway sequence in particular springs to mind). The third player in the collaboration also returns with a flourish, with Carter Burwell presenting another beautiful score.
Overall, “The Good Liar” is an excellent thriller for adult audiences, which is a genre and audience often underserved at the multiplex these days.