'The Good Liar': Film Review

Lots of skill, but no spark.
11/15/2019

Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren play a con artist and the wealthy widow he targets in Bill Condon's London-set thriller.

The first-ever onscreen pairing of British acting titans Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen — an enticing prospect on paper — alas proves anticlimactic in The Good Liar, the proficiently crafted but underwhelming new thriller from Bill Condon.

An example of the kind of middlebrow, classily accoutered “cinema for adults” that’s grown rare in the Age of Marvel, the film may pique the interest of viewers of a certain age; there’s a comfy pleasure in watching these two pros patter back and forth in plummy accents, clutching mugs of tea or sipping flutes of champagne.

Yet The Good Liar’s sophistication is nothing if not skin-deep. For all its nasty twists and turns, its fake-outs and flashbacks and cheekily preposterous pile-up of double-crosses, this story of an elderly con man and the wealthy widow he targets feels fatally devoid of danger. Square, tame and tidy as the London-area house kept by Mirren’s primly elegant, creamy-complexioned septuagenarian, The Good Liar is a work of skill but little spark.

Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher (Mr. Holmes) from Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel (which, admittedly, I haven’t read), it leaves you with the nagging impression that not every halfway-decent book should be made into a movie — surely not the takeaway Condon and co. were aiming for. The Good Liar is far from a disaster but it often comes off as something equally dreaded, and considerably duller: inconsequential and unnecessary.

Condon kicks things off cutting back and forth between Roy (McKellen) and Betty (Mirren) as they set up their respective online dating profiles. The two match, meet at a restaurant and hit it off in that polite, oh-so-English way. Both have survived their spouses and are looking for companionship. Betty, a sweet-tempered retired Oxford professor, finds Roy witty and well-mannered, and he seems harmless enough — which, I suppose, is meant to explain the fact that she’s comfortable inviting him to stay in her guest room when he injures his leg.

That development doesn’t go over well with Betty’s protective grandson, Stephen (Russell Tovey of HBO’s Looking and Years and Years, doing his darnedest in a thanklessly conceived part). As Roy disarms Betty with his twinkly smile and chivalrous attentions, Stephen smells a rat. And lo and behold, we quickly learn that Roy is a seasoned scammer with his eye on Betty’s bank account.

Betty appears to be the ideal mark, allowing Roy to come and go as he pleases, no questions asked — though she draws the line, at least initially, at allowing him into her bed. With the help of his longtime partner in fraud (played by Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter), Roy is soon arranging for Betty to place her ample savings in a joint fund that he can access.

But is Betty as credulous as she appears? What’s the deal with the sinister-looking bloke who periodically shows up in a car outside her house? Who is conning whom, and why? (If you find yourself wondering how a former academic played by Mirren — an actress of sublime slyness and poise who, as any Prime Suspect fan knows, naturally conveys a bristling braininess — would be so easily taken in, you’re too smart for this movie.)

A major swerve in the plot around the halfway mark prompts a series of flashbacks reframing everything that’s come before in a way that could most generously be described as, um, unpersuasive. To disclose more would risk “spoiling”; suffice it to say that the second hour is crammed with revelations and emotions designed to give the film a weight and darkness it hasn’t remotely earned. 

The Good Liar is clearly going for something along the lines of Hitchcock, Highsmith or le Carré, but never delivers the shivers of ambiguity and tightening noose of suspense one associates with those names. Part of the problem is that the film telegraphs, rather than foreshadows, its tale’s creepiness and dysfunction, from the overly deliberate dialogue to Carter Burwell’s apt but unsurprising score. For a thriller about dirty secrets and hidden agendas, there’s little stealth to the storytelling, or the style; everything is laid out, nothing teased or coaxed or dangled. The result is watchable but not much fun — a “smart” movie for viewers who don’t want to do any work.

Though Condon has capably — if never brilliantly — shepherded studio product (Dreamgirls, a couple of Twilight entries, the recent live-action Beauty and the Beast), his finest work (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey) has been more intimate, more curious, peeking into corners of human idiosyncrasy and desire. The Good Liar, on the other hand, never bothers, or perhaps can’t afford, to draw us too close; the film’s shaky narrative relies on the director keeping things moving so we don’t notice the glaring giveaways or gaping holes in credibility.

If the movie holds your attention, it’s thanks to McKellen’s mischievousness and Mirren’s peerless elegance — qualities these two actors project and embody without the tiniest trace of effort. Technical contributions, meanwhile, are smooth right down the line. The Good Liar is a well-oiled machine with no real function.

Production companies: New Line Cinema, Bron Creative, 1000 Eyes Production
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Director: Bill Condon
Screenplay: Jeffrey Hatcher (based on the novel by Nicholas Searle)
Cast: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Laurie Davidson, Phil Dunster
Producers: Greg Yolen, Bill Condon
Executive producers: Richard Brener, Andrea Johnston, Aaron L. Gilbert, Jason Cloth, Anjay Nagpal, Jack Morrissey, Nick O’Hagan
Director of photography: Tobias Schliessler
Production designer: John Stevenson
Editor: Virginia Katz
Music: Carter Burwell
Costume designer: Keith Madden
Casting: Lucy Bevan

Rated R, 109 minutes