In the British film industry, it’s not unusual for movie stars to enjoy leading roles in their later years, but those films rarely come in the shape of an old-fashioned Hitchcockian thriller like The Good Liar. Compared to “grey pound” films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or Finding Your Feet, to name a few, Bill Condon’s film is an absolutely outrageous departure, and one that stars Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren relish.
Based on the novel by Nicholas Searle, the film begins with their characters making some choice omissions on their online dating profiles before they connect through messaging and decide to meet up. Furthermore, Roy Courtnay (McKellen) is a career con artist who’s identified Betty McLeish (Mirren) as his latest target. Well versed in deception, Roy first intends to wangle some cash out of the widowed Betty, but soon discovers that the sting could be more lucrative and proportionally more difficult than he ever anticipated.
That’s all you need to know about the plot of The Good Liar, so we won’t go into any more detail about how the film unfolds after that first sequence. Working from Searle’s novel and Jeffrey Hatcher’s terrifically suspenseful screenplay, Condon has gifted grown-up audiences with a refreshingly contemporary star vehicle for two of our finest actors.
Even without adding points for how unusual this sort of film is for older stars (because it shouldn’t be), the film is quite an unexpected delight. With its mastery of intrigue and suspense, keeping the audience engrossed throughout its brisk 109 minutes, it successfully spins a classic long-con caper for modern audiences.
As expected, Mirren and McKellen make a superb pairing, with both playing against type to one extent or another. Similarly to the national treasures who appeared in last year’s King Of Thieves (a lesser film, but one that pulls the same trick of alienating us from older stars who we’ve grown to love over the years), their performances are decidedly light on any kind of twinkle, making them seem more ordinary than the characters they usually play.
Roy may lay the charm on thick, with a get-up that oddly enough recalls McKellen’s previous extended guest spot as a conman on Coronation Street, but the audience gets to see what a bastard he is behind the facade from the very beginning, too. Mirren has rarely been called upon to play “the mark” as she does here, but she too is transfixing from the off.
It’s a vehicle that plays to both their versatility and their reputations – knowing what the actors are capable of, you underestimate the characters at your peril. Elsewhere, Jim Carter is very good as Roy’s sly accomplice Vincent and Russell Tovey also shines in a supporting role as Betty’s suspicious grandson Steven, who proves to be a continual thorn in Roy’s side.
There’s not a whiff of comedy about its tone, but it’s witty enough to avoid being humourless. Then again, its nasty streak is a mile wide. While it’s rightly received a 15 certificate, the accompanying classification notes about content speak to some of its more unsettling moments. It’s not a gruesome film, but the matter-of-fact classiness of it all makes these bits even more striking.
The plot itself is straightforward enough to keep you hanging on, even if the story turns out to be simpler than it feels while you’re in it. To put it another way, it’s the sort of film where you can be completely taken out of it by the sudden appearance of Phil Dunster (aka Phil from those interminable Cineworld Unlimited adverts) in a short but crucial role, but then get absorbed in it once more with relative ease.
When it comes to The Good Liar, “they don’t make them like this any more” feels like an understatement. As fun as it is to watch the film’s puzzle box open up, this is a must-see for the electricity between McKellen and Mirren, two greats at the peak of their powers. The film is neither an instant classic nor a thriller that will reward countless viewings, but it’s entertaining grown-up popcorn fare.
The Good Liar is in cinemas now.