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'The Good Liar': Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen star in an enjoyable, original and poignant mystery

The film avoids dullness thanks to its impressive script written by Jeffrey Hatcher

Helen Mirren as Betty McLeish and Sir Ian McKellen as Roy Courtnay in The Good Liar. Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment
Helen Mirren as Betty McLeish and Sir Ian McKellen as Roy Courtnay in The Good Liar. Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment

As a crime mystery thriller with shades of a whodunnit thrown in for good measure, audiences will always be well aware that The Good Liar is hiding something integral from them. Especially as it wastes no time in revealing quite how deceitful Sir Ian McKellen’s career con artist Roy Courtnay is.

The Good Liar does exactly that in its second scene, which shows Courtnay hard at work on a devious plot to swindle hundreds of thousands of pounds out of some Russians.

This comes immediately after he has finished his first date with widow Betty McLeish (Dame Helen Mirren), who he had previously met on an online dating service. So when Courtnay learns that McLeish is a millionaire, he looks to worm his way into her life, even moving into her bungalow, as he hatches a plan to take all of her money for himself.

This is much to the chagrin of Steven (Russell Tovey), McLeish’s grandson, who is incredibly suspicious of Courtnay. Unfortunately, this serves only to bring the ageing duo closer, while Courtnay’s fellow con man Vincent, played by the always impressive Jim Carter, assists his partner in convincing McLeish to trust him.

In lesser hands, The Good Liar could have easily and quickly become tedious, as keeping certain details hidden from the audience while simultaneously entertaining and thrilling them is a tightrope that’s hard to master. The Good Liar avoids delving into dullness, though, thanks to Jeffrey Hatcher’s tantalising script, which always manages to hook you in when the plot might be becoming too predictable, and Bill Condon’s sturdy, albeit somewhat unremarkable, direction.

Far from that being an insult, Condon is well aware that his direction doesn’t need to be showy. That’s because, in Mirren and McKellen, he has two of the finest actors of their generation to control, guide and mesmerise viewers, which they do with the subtlety and sleight of hand of a magician.

This actually marks the third time Condon has directed McKellen, as he previously oversaw his Oscar-­nominated turn in 1998’s Gods and Monsters as well as 2015’s desperately underrated Mr Holmes, which also happens to be written by Hatcher.

Russell Toveya as Steven in 'The Good Liar'. Warner Bros. Entertainment
Russell Toveya as Steven in 'The Good Liar'. Warner Bros. Entertainment

Courtnay is much more streetwise and dastardly than McKellen’s characters in either of these films, and The Good Liar gives the thespian ample opportunity to play a variety of different moods and personalities. Unsurprisingly, he goes from vulnerable to charismatic to genuinely menacing without missing a beat.

Not only does McKellen deliver each with aplomb, but he’s also obviously having a stupendous time doing so. That becomes especially true as The Good Liar progresses, as McKellen becomes both increasingly sinister, but also more and more watchable.

This is far from only McKellen’s movie, though, as he has an expert on-screen sparring partner in Mirren. The Academy Award-winning actress is pitch-perfect throughout, as McLeish’s apparent frailness and naivety is always accompanied by an obvious wit and sharpness that keeps her character shrouded in mystery.

While Mirren and McKellen previously did the play Dance of Death on Broadway together, which earned Mirren a Tony Award nomination, The Good Liar is the first film in which the old friends have starred alongside each other. That feels wrong, and clearly the pair wanted to use The Good Liar to make up for lost time and other missed opportunities. Not only does every single moment they’re together on-screen feel electric, but they also make sure to add a nuance and uncertainty that only makes the mystery more intriguing.

That brings us to the ending, the details of which will be avoided so that you can fully enjoy The Good Liar.

Despite all of the positives mentioned above, The Good Liar unfolds at such a pace and in such an obvious manner that it is always relying on its finale, and the revelation it is obviously hiding, to make it genuinely worthwhile. So when its conclusion begins, you can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed. The remaining minutes of the movie, though, suddenly swerve from the seemingly ridiculous to being both poignant and prescient, while Condon even finds time for a thought-provoking denouement that wraps things up nicely, too.

Sure, within this conclusion there are a number of plot-holes that will probably undermine the rest of the movie if you dwell on them, but there’s more than enough depth and emotion to paper over those cracks. Plus, even Roy Courtnay wouldn’t commit the crime of focusing on these minor foibles when there’s the chance to celebrate both Mirren and McKellen being in such imperious form.

Updated: November 13, 2019 08:19 PM



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