Film review: Talents of veteran actors badly wasted in The Good Liar

Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen worth watching but the film gets lost in its own con

The Good Liar. Directed by Bill Condon. Starring Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen. Rating: 6 (out of 10).

Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, Dame and Sir, respectively, elevate whatever cinematic endeavor they’re a part of. But even these Brit heavyweights can’t plug the holes in the ultimately leaky boat that is The Good Liar.

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Turns out everyone lies in their online dating profile, even old-timers like Roy Courtnay (McKellen), a serial con man whose specialty is the seductive swindle he performs on vulnerable widows. He meets Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), moneyed to the tune of four million pounds and ripe for the picking. Both have purportedly outlived their spouses: retired Oxford professor Betty is looking for companionship; Roy is looking for a payday.

And so he settles in for the long wait before he pounces. Betty grows comfortable enough to invite Roy to stay after he hurts his leg, a turn of events that doesn’t sit well with Betty’s protective grandson (Russell Tovey). It’s the perfect opportunity for Roy to case the joint and slowly insinuate himself into Betty’s everyday life, and eventually into her bed.

Waiting in the wings is Roy’s longtime partner in crime (Jim Carter, far more sinister than he was in Downton Abbey), who is poised to help scuttle Betty’s fortune into a waiting bank account. A few jarring violent episodes later, it’s not a question of whether or not Roy is evil but rather if he deserves any kind of redemption.

“Do you know who you are?... You’re the only person on this planet who makes me feel that I’m not alone,” Betty tells Roy. Roy’s perspective is the one we follow for much of the movie, purposely blinding us to the fact that Betty might be telling lies, too.

For Betty is no doddering fool, and far from the easy mark Roy was hoping for. She has a suitcase of secrets all her own that is unceremoniously dumped all over the film’s second half. The screenplay is by Jeffrey Hatcher from the novel by Nicholas Searle, and it rushes to its big reveal not unlike writers did in Last Christmas. The flashbacks are like thudding potholes on a pleasantly winding road: it’s as if filmmakers didn’t trust their viewers to deduce things for themselves, and their actors to deliver.

Condon has helmed his share of blockbusters (the latest Beauty and the Beast, several Twilight movies) and more intimate projects (Gods and Monsters, for which McKellen received a Best Actor nomination) but this film doesn’t seem to know what it is, striving hard for mass appeal and losing its edge in the process.

Despite everything looking and sounding “just so,” from Carter Burwell’s suspenseful score to the careful composition of Betty’s apartment, little care was taken in stitching the narrative’s past and present. There’s no clever foreshadowing, only before and after (or after and before, if you like). Go for the pleasure of seeing Mirren and McKellen interact – which is no small thing – but don’t be surprised if you feel swindled by the last act.

Twitter: @juliecfilm

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