McKellen and Mirren serve up a feast of falsehoods
The Good Liar, adapted from Nicholas Searle’s best-selling novel by screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by Bill Condon, affords the viewer the sheer, undiluted pleasure of seeing two master thespians – Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren (or Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren, if you prefer) – operating at full throttle yet making it look effortless.
Remarkably, this marks the first screen pairing of McKellen and Mirren, although they’d previously appeared on stage together in Strindberg’s “Dance of Death” nearly 20 years ago in New York. The Good Liar also marks McKellen’s fourth screen collaboration with Condon (including Gods and Monsters and Beauty and the Beast), and the second boasting the McKellen/Condon/Hatcher triumvirate, following Mr. Holmes (2015).
Set in 2009, the narrative details the relationship between McKellen’s Roy Courtnay, a widower, and Mirren’s Betty McLeish, a widow. They’ve “met” online and decide to meet in person, where they immediately confess they’d used false names when emailing each other. This is the first of many falsehoods that will pass between the two, although certainly not the last.
It quickly becomes apparent that Roy is a con artist, having pulled off a number of lucrative investment scams with his “business partner,” Vincent (reliable Jim Carter), and that he’s sizing Betty up for the (financial) slaughter. McKellen’s in grand form as the devious, duplicitous Roy, although it’s not apparent how legitimately dangerous he is until later.
As Roy and Betty’s relationship develops, replete with him becoming a mainstay at her suburban house, her grandson Stephen (Russell Tovey) makes no secret of his distrust – and distaste – for his grandmother’s new friend.
McKellen has a larger role, but rest assured, Mirren isn’t overlooked. Like the actress who plays her, Betty is not to be underestimated. As the title hints heavily, neither character is what they seem. There’s a definite David Mamet flavor to the proceedings, which are further augmented by Carter Burwell’s effective score and the crisp, stylish cinematography by Tobias A. Schleissler (also encoring from Mr. Holmes and Beauty and the Beast).
Make no mistake; The Good Liar is a yarn, one in which the importance of seemingly insignificant moments ultimately becomes clear as the story progresses. There’s a certain amount of sleight-of-hand, but the film always plays fair, plot-wise. And, again, who better to weave this tangled yarn than McKellen and Mirren? To divulge much more about the story could conceivably spoil the fun, so it’s best to simply sit back and savor the twists and turns as they transpire. This is juicy, tasty entertainment with a sting in the tail.
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2019, Mark Burger.