If it’s difficult to perceive how Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren have never worked together on stage or screen until now, in 2019, then perhaps it’s meant to be. I could go the quick route and say that they are most excellent together, and that The Good Liar, Bill Condon’s adult-friendly popcorn thriller is an unbridled mystery delight. But regrettably, the truth of the matter is simple: It can’t keep its own story straight. At times, it’s comical; other times, confusing. All throughout, we’re privy to go giddy when the twists are revealed, as we should. The road to reach them, however, slightly misguided and filled with potholes.
Adapted from the best-selling debut novel by Nicholas Searle, Liar starts out like the most convincingly gushy romantic drama. Roy Courtnay (McKellen) is a lovelorn single guy in his 70s trying for love, striking luck via an online courting period with widower Betty McLeish (Mirren). Little does she know, he’s an old-fashioned con man more dubious with his schemes and plots than he could likely disclose in the open. Upon their first face-to-face encounter, the two can at least admit to using fake aliases in their profiles. Rocky starts aside, they grow ever closer as Roy’s business interests, notably involving hapless Russians who’ve no idea what they’re doing skyrocket. His big plan appears simple enough: fake an injury, move into her guest room, then start a joint savings account under the proximity of Roy’s accomplice Vincent (Jim Carter, Downtown Abbey‘s esteemed Mr. Carson).
To everyone’s eventual shock, there’s something a bit deeper in play, something most viewers will not have suspected if they haven’t read the book. And Jeffrey Hatcher’s (Sherlock Holmes) screenplay doesn’t shy from spreading that foreshadowing ever so thickly, like a knife to a fresh jar of peanut butter. Of the two, Roy is more the motivator than Betty would be a loyal supporter. As charmed as she is by him, her doctorate grandson Stephen (Russell Tovey) is far from convinced their relationship is at all genuine. We reach the point where his WWII knowledge comes in a bit too handy, investigating deeply into the suave Roy’s daily life, hidden secrets just aching to be revealed.
By default, 80-year-old McKellen wins at just about every tawdry turn, save for when Mirren willingly steps up to the plate. She’ll stop him short at a welcome change of dynamics at the midway point, his secretive feelings toward her tested greatly, just like an audience’s patience. The packed house of mostly seniors I’d viewed with followed along with every event like an endless rollercoaster. Condon (Beauty and the Beast) holds the keys with detailed prowess, knowing how and where to keep the tension balanced with good-natured humor. Hatcher’s script allows for many avenues where deception can fester, translating into painful flashbacks, paired with an increasingly dark tone the further into Roy’s backstory we uncover.
Inconsistencies aside, the two leads of a certain age do plenty to entertain more than moviegoers of a certain age. The events they describe, and the ones they fabricate amount to two starkly different depictions of the same story, a complication Hatcher is unsure to solve but that Condon isn’t fazed by. Through all of this, Mirren and McKellen are absolute electricity on screen, further fueling the cat-and-mouse game being crafted before our eyes. The moments they do share, we could never look away. When they split off, Roy’s POV takes control, as opposed to Betty’s in the backseat. Her solo moments are relegated to leaving little clues here and there for what the film’s endgame is building up to. Add to that Carter Burwell’s menacing underscore, one of my favorites this year, dotting every scene with a sonic ambiance otherwise impossible to peg down.
It’s an unfair, slightly unrewarding imbalance, their chemistry together possibly in need of further refinement, but no less unwavering from their goal. Essentially, the pair are portraying fictitious versions of their natural professions, duping each other at every possible opportunity without making that appear obvious. If that wouldn’t change the decorum for older actors looking for convincing material to star in, nothing likely will. For Dame Helen and Sir Ian to take this long, and this late (or early) in their careers to butt heads, that’s the only thing I’d frown at that wasn’t the somewhat inconsistent adaptation. Yet with a film like The Good Liar that guarantees at least a few casual surprises without them being hokey, put those two in and it will be a genuine favorite with longevity to spare until we’re eventually proven otherwise. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
The Good Liar opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated R for some strong violence, language, and brief nudity; 109 minutes.