One of the reasons I really like Bill Condon’s new movie The Good Liar is that it’s a movie for adults. It’s not going to spawn a franchise. There’s no merchandise to buy. It’s not about the ancillary revenue streams; it’s about this story, and it’s a damn good one. Condon has entrusted his con artist movie to living legends Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, and that’s more than good enough to make for a compelling thriller that also has something interesting to say about who’s allowed to forget and who has to live with the past. But Condon is wise enough to never let his movie get too introspective has he keeps every scene tense where you know something is amiss, but you can’t put your finger on what.
Roy Courtnay (McKellen) and Betty McLeish (Mirren) are lonely, elderly people who meet through an online dating site. They hit it off and everything seems to be going well, except that Roy is a con artist. He’s already in the middle of pulling one grift when he meets Betty, and he sees her as a mark for another. Confident in his abilities and his power to charm Betty, Roy starts invading her life, much to the consternation of Betty’s grandson Steven (Russell Tovey). However, as Roy and Betty get closer, Roy must work harder to hide his secrets and ignore that he might have genuine feelings for the woman he’s trying to fleece.
Talking any more about the plot would be a disservice to the overall movie. If you’ve seen any con artist movie before, your radar will be set to note that not everything is what it seems, but Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher know just how far to push the audience and when to lure them in with another revelation. When you finally reach the climax, the “how” doesn’t really matter so much because the “why” is so thematically rich with its lessons of history, memory, and trauma. Again, to say anymore would ruin some of the film’s most powerful revelations, so I recommend going in as cold as possible.
What I can say is that Mirren and McKellen are international treasures, and they both get a chance to shine here. Hollywood doesn’t really seem to know what to do with older actors rather than stick them in supporting roles and hope for the best, but when you give these two actors center stage you can see why they’ve been so revered for so long. It’s one thing to be a movie star, but it’s another to be a master of your craft, and that’s what you get here with McKellen and Mirren. McKellen has the juicier role of the two getting to play sweet, innocent Roy when he’s around Betty and a real nasty piece of work in his private life. You can see he’s having a ball with the role, and yet we’re also eager to see Roy get his comeuppance. As for Mirren, she knows how to play the quieter part until the story demands a dramatic moment, and then she just casually hits it out of the park because she’s Helen freaking Mirren.
When you see as many franchise movies as I do, a film like The Good Liar is a breath of fresh air. No, it doesn’t reinvent the con artist film, and yes, it’s based on a novel, but those are minor things when the film just gets to be the film. It doesn’t have to worry about The Good Liar Cinematic Universe or whether enough kids buy The Good Liar action figures. It’s mostly just a showcase for two of the best actors working today to play off each other, and then Condon gets to build a tense thriller around them. That’s really all it is, and it works wonderfully. I’ve lost count of how many mediocre franchise movies I’ve sat through this year, but The Good Liar always had my attention. You can’t focus anywhere else when McKellen and Mirren are working their magic.