Bill Condon’s latest movie is based on an all-too obvious deceit. After all, when you name a film The Good Liar, you beg the question, “Who?”.
An elderly pair –Roy (Ian McKellen) and Betty (Helen Mirren) – are getting together for a first date. As you might expect from a match made online, both have told the odd white lie before this first meetup: Betty, that she doesn’t drink, even while mischievously eyeing her glass of wine; Roy, that he doesn’t smoke, as a cigar lies smouldering in a nearby ashtray.
The deception, though, goes far deeper than the occasional peccadillo.
Roy is, in fact, a career conman who, aided by his friendly partner-accountant Vincent (Jim Carter), looking to get his hands-on Betty’s substantial savings. The only one who seems to sense Roy’s true purpose is Betty’s grandson, historian Steven (Russell Tovey), who immediately distrusts this charming interloper – with better reason than even he might suspect.
Far from the raffish, twinkly persona he projects, all soft shoe and “Tickety-boo”, Roy is a nasty bit of work. When a Russian compatriot demands a cut of an early score, Roy’s response is swift and brutal; involving the use of a meat tenderiser.
Due in no small part to its title, The Good Liar feels like it’s leading you down the path towards some inevitable reversal. There’s a certain delight in seeing McKellen adopt a sympathetic limp as he rounds a corner like a reverse Keyser Soze – he makes a meal, too, of pretending to struggle with a flight of stairs – but Mirren is too innately sharp to fully convince as the naïve, passive Betty, easily yielding to Roy’s ploys as to shared accounts and magical investments.
Even the concentric roads of the small commuter town in which she lives, when viewed from the air, seem designed to be a trap.
Despite the loss of her husband, Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay – based on the book by Nick Searle – never gives her compelling enough motivation. Rather than The Usual Suspects, it’s McKellen’s own collaboration with Bryan Singer that seems to have the most relevance to the plot, as well as 2015 Mirren-starrer Woman in Gold.
Like most Condon-McKellen’s projects together, The Good Liar seems destined for Sunday afternoon viewing on the BBC, only this may be better suited for ITV. After all, as the BBFC certificate reveals, the film contains ‘very strong language, strong violence, gory image’ – representatives of the grey pound may be put off by the grue – and one warning that actually spoils the whole denouement; painfully expository as it turns out to be.
DoP Tobias A. Schliessler’s atmospheric cinematography and Carter Burwell’s lilting score season the potboiler, and McKellen and Mirren keep things simmering nicely, but The Good Liar is both underdone, giving us too little to chew on, and undone by a lack of genuine human interest – every conversation laced with double meaning but no real substance.