For the most part, I was completely engrossed by The Good Liar. A watertight plot, compelling performances from Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren — their best outside their usual roles. To me, it seemed to herald an earlier time when a detective thriller could be sturdy, reliable escapism. It seemed to be the perfect formula. But even this classy, grown-up, sophisticated neo-noir wound up being a little juvenile on closer inspection.
The Good Liar
Director: Bill Condon
Release date: November 8, 2019 (UK); November 15, 2019 (USA)
Roy Courtnay (McKellen) is a dastardly conman in the most literal sense. He beguiles widower Betty McLeish (Mirren), herself worth several million, and from the outset, it’s clear his intentions are dishonourable. The excellent opening sequence cross-cuts between the two individuals alone in their homes, filling out an online dating profile with exacting precision. Betty fills out her name: Estelle. Roy picks up a packet of cigarettes; unchecks the ‘Smoker’ box. Unchecking her own ‘Drinker’ box, Betty sips a generous glass of wine. It’s a winning concoction and the economical editing tells us all we need to know even before the credits have finished rolling.
Roy’s story is shrouded in mystery, and it becomes clear from the seedy characters he surrounds himself with that he’s not to be trusted. Some of the most stereotyped deals take place between himself and Russian comrades, and the barely-concealed hostility of members of opposing groups towards each other is chilling. Increasingly, it becomes a game for him — more about the thrill of lying, of trying to swindle cash, of pulling off the perfect heist while remaining utterly innocuous to his unwitting victim.
Mirren’s Betty is recovering from the death of her husband but experiences a resurgence of youthful impulse when she meets Roy. Becoming more easily influenced to spend her money, taking this stranger into her home and revealing more about herself, Betty is somewhat vulnerable and it’s easy to pity her. However, she’s not all she seems either. It transpires that she used to lecture at Oxford and that she has a little more put away than initially expected. The pair are full of surprises, keeping us sharp and alert throughout.
The film isn’t just about the doomed affair between Roy and Betty; it’s a tale of malice, greed, manipulation, and generations of deceit. What I enjoyed the most about it was the way it played on tropes of pensioners and their likes and dislikes, their predispositions, and their hobbies and their mannerisms. It is not just film about pensioners, but about what pensioners are perceived — and conditioned — to like and dislike, how they behave just a product of how society expects them to behave. In one scene, McKellen and Mirren go to see Inglorious Basterds at the cinema. Scenes of Nazis literally being torched by a flamethrower (a favourite trope of Tarantino’s) mix oddly with the couple’s bemused expressions. It works on two levels: showing us that these older actors can still act with great force, but that they’re treated as weak and fragile in general. Well, it stops with these two.
The distinct London setting is part of what makes the film so credible. Thrillers set in nondescript cities lack specificity, but the details, from Charing Cross tube station to Royal Holloway university all make it that little more realistic. Characters, too, are fleshed out well. Betty’s grandson Stephen (Russell Tovey), a PhD researcher, plays an integral role in the couple’s relationship and he is correctly suspicious of Roy and his enigmatic past. What grandson wouldn’t be suspicious of a naïve elderly relative being taken in by a conman?
If it’s not immediately clear from the trailer, the editing in the film is fantastic. We’re often aligned with characters in such a way that we can predict what they’re thinking before they speak. Roy’s dealings with unsavoury crooks take on a darker tone when they’re cross-cut with street scenes and police chases. Although his dealings felt a little cliched on occasion, I think it was rectified by McKellen’s performance. He was, as always, convincing, and by leaning into well-worn tropes of pensioners, he made the performance more self-aware. While McKellen always delivers a powerful performance, by deliberately weakening himself as a character, he showed his skill in deceiving both audiences and characters.
It wasn’t, however, perfect. Some plot points felt meandering and forced, lacking a clear unity that would have drawn it together. I wonder about a segment in which the couple head off to Germany on holiday, which seems unusually bolted-on. Of course, it becomes more important as the story progresses, but it couldn’t help but feel a little incongruous. Often, I found myself thinking that the dialogue and structure resembled scenes from a play.
Comparisons might be drawn to last year’s King of Thieves, except Mirren’s and McKellen’s performances carry The Good Liar, while King of Thieves is parcelled out between an ensemble cast. The effect of a much smaller cast is that the leads are more concentrated. Perhaps the biggest difference is that King of Thieves is based on the real-life Hatton Garden Heist, whereas The Good Liar is based on the novel of the same name by Nicholas Searle. The difference between a dramatised version of true events and fiction, of course, is that fiction tends to run a little out of control, which was the case towards the end of the film.
While it was clear that we were heading for a reveal at the end, I don’t think I was quite prepared for the final 15 minutes. Some of the details were ludicrous and I struggled to believe that a film that I held in such high regard for the entire duration could be let down with such a flimsy ending. It felt rushed and its clunkiness was at odds with the sophisticated cinematography and editing, the general sense of pervasive paranoia, that the film had built up so well. Nevertheless — I won’t let it spoil the enjoyment of the rest of the film, a gripping thriller deserving of attention.