The Good Liar movie review: Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren excel in a charming yet inconsistent con film
As long as The Good Liar is not milking the past, it gives enough time to Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren to enthrall us with their incredible talent.
A superior con film, just like the gifted con artist, stays a step ahead of the viewers while constantly assuring them they have their finger on precisely what is going on. It also leaves a trail of breadcrumbs, every single one of which serves to assuage the very smidgens of doubt that it dexterously apportions into their heads. It is a delicate balance sustained by applying just the right quantity of charm to dispel the rogue grain of doubt.
With acting royalty the likes of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren in its cast, The Good Liar could never be suspected of running short on charm. As soon as they meet after matching on a dating website — the ‘computer service’, as Betty (Mirren) calls it — the titans of the art start to lay the charm thick and fast. For a film featuring two septuagenarians for leads, it moves briskly, driven by Roy (McKellen) and Betty’s infectious chemistry, and the equally infectious dialogue. Roy is revealed to be an insouciant grifter. He swindles a couple of people out of their money, thus casting a shadow on his designs for the budding relationship with the sweet and trusting Betty. Things get murkier once he moves in with her, much to her grandson Stephen’s (Russell Tovey) consternation, and appears to set sights on her considerable fortune. The closer he comes to her and the grandson, however, the more Roy is beckoned to his shadowy past, and the more he doubts himself and his mark.
During a dinner conversation at Betty’s house, Roy tells Stephen that he does not like to dwell upon his past. Director Bill Condon could have been advised to do the same. Or to do it more prudently. For the signature attribute of the film ie its briskness is irreparably damaged by the untimely and elongated plunge into the past. The monstrous historical calamity it harks back to is paid mere lip-service for the pedestrian purpose of fashioning the major twist of the film. Moreover, the trail of breadcrumbs it litters across the narrative leading up to the twist is riddled with predictable foreshadowing. Roy and Betty’s date at a screening of Inglorious Basterds, and Stephen’s research on Albert Speer stick out unwieldy. In trying to nourish his story with a dash of historical injustice, and the revenge that issues from it, Condon not only distracts from the sheer fun of witnessing McKellen and Mirren have a go at each other but imbues it with a bathos that upsets the delicate balance his choice demands. The Good Liar thus wastes the potential exhibited by the chemistry of its leads, and their supremely enjoyable cat-and-mouse theatrics.
As long as we remain anchored in 2009, the year it is set in, The Good Liar, bolstered by its fine performers, remains a joy to witness unfold. And this despite the less than compelling nature of its central mystery the route the relationship between Roy and Betty would eventually take. Condon expertly navigates the tonality of their relationship, here and there suggesting slyly at a trick or two waiting for us around the corner. He uses the age old shot-reverse shot and reaction shot technique to effect sudden changes within a single scene, guiding us commendably through the crests and troughs of tensions arising within it.
We come to a con film fully aware we are going to be tricked by the filmmakers. Manipulation is built into the DNA of the genre. So if we can figure out things earlier than usual and still enjoy the ride, it makes for a worthy watch. Condon’s set-up for the film is so prim and proper, and his characters so conventionally wrought you become instantly aware of the way things will pan out. You lounge on your seat, fix yourself a beverage, and marvel at the leads’ wit and wicked charm.
The Good Liar makes for fun viewing despite its flaws. As long as it is not milking the past, it gives enough time to McKellen and Mirren to surprise and enthrall us with their incredible talent. More importantly, it makes a strong case for more films with leading roles for older actors. Given the right script, the decades spent honing their craft can provide wholesome entertainment for everyone.
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