How Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren have never had the opportunity to share the screen is beyond me and, after seeing their performances in Bill Condon’s The Good Liar, may even be grounds for criminal neglect. The two are, at ages 80 and 74 respectively, at the top of their game and could be studied for semesters at a time at acting schools around the world.
If only their first collaboration were as worthy of their talents as it should have been.
Based on Nicholas Searle’s novel, with a screenplay by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (2015’s Mr. Holmes), The Good Liar has all the makings of a nifty HItchcokian thriller. Right from the outset, we know we’re not dealing with trustworthy folks. During the opening credits Roy (McKellan) and Betty (Mirren) are separately filling out online dating profiles; he takes a puff on his cigarette as he checks the “non-smoker” box, and she gulps vino while checking the “non-drinker” box. Then, after they’ve successfully matched, they meet and reveal that each used fake names.
As it turns out, there’s a reason for Roy’s ruse. He, along with his colleague Vincent (Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter) are scam artists, running long cons to bilk their marks of hundreds of thousands of dollars through phony investment opportunities. Betty, who has thriftily managed to save a couple million dollars over the years, is the latest target.
Director Bill Condon, whose last project was Disney’s abominable live-action Beauty and the Beast in 2017, does a fine job building the tension, even while setting the stage for the all-too-obvious ending. And, yes, there’s no doubt at all that we know exactly where this thing is headed—the issue is what we find when we get there. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “It’s not the destination, It’s the journey.” It’s The Good Liar’s destination, though, that will leave audiences in varying levels of confusion, apathy, and/or frustration.
With no clues and virtually no set-up of any kind, the film’s big reveal comes so far out of left field, you’ll wonder if an entire reel was left out of the final print (that is, if films still came in reels… and were, fact, film). You can almost see The Good Liar‘s balloon deflate before your eyes, as plot holes, incongruities, and convenient coincidences start to taint the twists and turns. The fillm winds up feeling like a puzzle with a few pieces missing or, more accurately, a few pieces from an entirely different puzzle that somehow ended up in the wrong box.
Despite it all, though, the film maintains itself as an absolute showcase for Mirren and McKellan. Not only do they play off each other exquisitely with brilliant, nuance-laced performances, they actually manage to elevate the film (at least somewhat) from where it would have been in virtually anyone else’s far-less-capable hands. And that, as they say, is the truth.