Synopsis: Career con artist Roy Courtnay can hardly believe his luck when he meets well-to-do widow Betty McLeish online. As Betty opens her home and life to him, Roy is surprised to find himself caring about her, turning what should be a cut-and-dry swindle into the most treacherous tightrope walk of his life.
Stars: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson
Director: Bill Condon
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: When you know you’re in good hands, it’s easy to settle back in your seat at a movie theater. That’s why looking over the cast and crew of The Good Liar the other day I was able to get comfortable early on because I just had an inkling this would be one I didn’t have to fret much over. Two iconic actors starring in a movie for a Oscar-winning director based on an international bestselling thriller adapted by a MN-connected screenwriter I quite like – you are speaking my cinematic language with perfect pronunciation. Add in my general craving for something sophisticated and, y’know, adult and I was primed for a sly con movie that would have the usual twists and turns that came with the genre.
Now I’ve seen the trailer for The Good Liar several times over the past few months and more than a few key moments have been shown already so I’d advise you not to take another look before seeing this or avert your eyes if it comes on the telly before you get to the theater. What’s nice to report is that, for once, the marketing team has elected to omit a key piece of the puzzle and that’s what makes The Good Liar such a fine treat to receive in the middle of a shaky November at the movies. Instead of telegraphing what audiences should expect to see, they’ve left it for you to find out if you choose to venture into this adaptation of Nicholas Searle’s acclaimed debut novel from 2016. If you do, you’ll be in for a fine ride featuring excellent performances in a movie that comes with crisp edges and is cool to the touch.
After meeting on a dating website for seniors, Ray (Ian McKellen, All Is True) and Betty (Helen Mirren, Woman in Gold) hit it off right away at their first dinner and strike up a friendship. She’s looking for companionship after losing her husband the year before and he’s looking for…something different. Well, not at first. At first he seems genuinely a little interested in her as a potential love interest, but once he finds out Betty is sitting on a hefty nest egg, he moves in for the con and brings along his partner (Jim Carter, Downton Abbey) with plans to swindle his new friend. As Ray and Betty’s friendship deepens, so does his ability to charm her and it’s to the script’s great credit that it doesn’t immediately turn Ray into an obvious money-hungry sociopath that Betty should be able to see right through.
That’s not the extent of Ray’s criminal dealings though, as he’s also involved with another scheme involving businessmen investing in a fake real estate corporation. Opting to lay low until that blows over, he moves in with Betty, under the disapproving eye of her increasingly suspicious grandson (Russell Tovey, Muppets Most Wanted) who knows something is off about Ray but can’t put his finger on exactly what. Driving a sly wedge between grandmother and grandson, Ray starts to separate Betty from her resources of safety until he’s practically all she has to rely on. As Ray grows closer to Betty and gains her trust, his plan starts to come together…but when the time comes will he be able to go through with it and wipe her bank account clean? Will his feelings get the best of him? Or is there another player in the game that no one is yet aware of?
The answers to all these questions and more are laid out cleanly in the graceful screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher (Mr. Holmes) which is generous to both Mirren and McKellen in the way it allows them to play each scene without rushing. The same goes for director Bill Condon (Beauty and the Beast) who takes his time setting the film up in its first hour as we are introduced to Ray’s duality as a slick (and surprisingly nasty) crook one moment and a fragile aged elder leaning on Betty’s compassion in another. There’s a tendency to let the victim of these stories look like a of fool for not seeing through this ruse but you get the sense in Mirren’s performance she knows Ray’s not always telling the whole truth but also that she has maybe emerged from a marriage where certain things went unsaid as well.
The final act of The Good Liar contains a few satisfyingly head-turning game changers and I didn’t see all of them coming…at least not the exact direction they were coming from. You may have an inkling what corner the movie is about to go around but with Hatcher keeping Searle’s secrets so well he easily throws you off the scent, and that’s where the movie becomes less of a thriller and more of a cat and mouse drama that Mirren and McKellen revel in. Both are playing against their perceived type here, he less as the warm-hearted gentlemen he appears to be and she far removed from the ballsy dame we know she is. That’s fun to watch and seems like it was fun for them to perform.
If there’s one thing I’d change about The Good Liar is that it didn’t need to be quite so hard of a film. Certain elements I’d agree have to play out against a backdrop of vicious crimes for specific plot tricks to work but there are parts of the movie that take place in strip clubs for no real purpose and key scenes of brutality that feel out of place. While it contributes some element of surprise, it didn’t feel like an overall value add to the story Condon and company set out to tell. Thankfully, any inclination to turn a pivotal moment into a bloody mess was avoided and the film as a whole retained its level of maturity when it very well could have sold its soul for cheap shock value.
There are certain actors some people would pay to hear read the telephone book and I honestly don’t think I’d be happy just watching Mirren or McKellen be stationary going through the alphabet. What they’ve shown in The Good Liar is that they’re keen on taking on roles that require them to take action and get their hands dirty, not remain sedentary and stodgy. Using their bodies as well as their trained voices, they’re actors that are fascinating to watch teamed in a project that holds your attention with ease. If only more movies were made with this amount of class, patience, and trust in the audience.