From an early moment in “The Good Liar,” it is quite clear what one of the big twists will be down the line. That made this reviewer rather trepidatious.
On the one hand, watching two masters like Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren square off against each other is, all by itself, worth the price of admission. On the other hand, if the point of the affair is to be more clever than the audience and get everyone to gasp at the end (and that is largely the goal), the movie can’t let people see what’s coming and yet it does.
So, as stated, a certain amount of nerves crept in as I was watching this Bill Condon directed movie. The question for me largely became: would this story, based on the novel by Nicholas Searle, deliver some sort of ending that made it all worthwhile even though the larger brushstrokes of it were clear from the start. The answer is: yes, absolutely. Those in the audience may have an idea of what is coming, but as the details fill in, as the full scope of what is going on becomes apparent, those same people will find themselves more than satisfied.
The tale here is of Roy Courtnay (McKellen) wooing Betty McLeish (Mirren). Two senior citizens, they meet online in 2009 and after a few conversations get together for dinner. From there, the relationship takes off and they become good friends with the possibility of something romantic down the line. Roy, however, is lying to Betty. He is a conman in it for the money. Betty’s grandson, Stephen (Russell Tovey) has a basic idea of this and tries to warn her, but Betty won’t listen.
That is all well and good and, frankly, not terribly special. What makes the vast majority of the movie worth one’s time is seeing McKellen go up against Mirren (and vice versa). There is certainly an amount of back and forth with their characters, but whether the characters are happy or sad, there are scenes where it feels as though McKellen and Mirren are pushing one another to great heights as actors, as partners. These are two incredibly great performers who seem to relish being opposite one another in the movie, who seem to take every opportunity to bring out more of their craft and that of the individual opposite them.
Whether it is Tovey or Jim Carter, who plays Courtnay’s henchman, or anyone else, the supporting cast is equally strong, particularly when they are in a scene with Mirren or McKellen. It is a joy to watch them even when what is being depicted is awful.
In fact, some of the awful is what occurs in this the script (from Jeffrey Hatcher) and some is in how it occurs, and the latter is far more troubling. There is an awkwardly executed but super important flashback somewhere around midway through the film. It is unlike anything the audience has seen to that point and poorly placed. It is jarring and wrong. Whether the information in it is important or not, it is done terribly and far too important for that.
One could say that “The Good Liar” is, in fact, full of abrupt and disquieting moments, and to some extent that’s true, but not like this one. Those others tend to be bloody and brutal. So much of the affair is this quiet tale of a con and of a growing love, but those moments are punctuated by ones of true violence. These bits of the movie are raw and real and vicious. While other films may be far more over the top with what they depict, it is precisely because this one is generally so quiet that the bits of violence are all the more shocking. Whatever its other faults, this is a powerful film.
“The Good Liar” is one of those movies which is so incredibly wonderful for so much of its length that the bad moments shine all the more, and in this case are so troubling because they’re due to the film’s structure. There is something very basically wrong in the way a set of sequences are organized that deflate the film (and if I go into too many specifics on the moments the entire thing will be ruined). It is only kept aloft through Mirren and McKellen’s work, which is immaculate. Clever and fun and brutal, but not as clever and fun as it should be, this is a movie worth seeing.
photo credit: Warner Bros.