As unbelievable as it may seem Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen have never appeared on screen together. They did a stint on Broadway in August Strindberg’s “Dance of Death” but the con job flick “The Good Liar” is the first time they have acted together in a film. It’s been worth the wait. More on that later.
The old-fashioned story of secrets and lies begins in a very modern way, on a dating site for widowed septuagenarians. Mirren plays Betty McLeish, a wealthy widow and retired Oxford professor. She’s upbeat and realistic, looking for new love in the time she has left. McKellen is Roy Courtnay, a charming but dirty-rotten-scoundrel looking to separate Betty from her cash who complains that the dating site is “a system for matching the delusional with the hopeless.” Over their lunch he beguiles her and soon romance blossoms. “Do you know who you are?” she asks. “You’re the only person on this planet who makes me feel that I’m not alone.” When the crafty old guy fakes a knee injury so he can move in with her she agrees it is the second part of his plan (along with a skeevy sidekick played by “Downton Abbey” star Jim Carter) to convince her to sign over her bank accounts, combining their money to provide for their future together. Despite the objections of her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey), she agrees but first they take a trip to Berlin where cracks in their stories are revealed. “In just a blink,” Roy says, “your life is changed forever.”
“The Good Liar” is a b-movie with an a-list cast.
Director Bill Condon has made a nicely crafted cat-and-mouse thriller that for most of its running time rattles along at a good clip, doling out clues like candy at Halloween. It’s when the twists become preposterous that the plot lets down its fine cast. As the story starts swinging for the fences McKellen and Mirren are left batting clean-up, trying to keep the thrills intact while the drawn-out conclusion dilutes the pleasures of the earlier, tension-laden scenes.
It’s a delight to watch McKellen and Mirren’s chemistry. As Roy, McKellen is easy charm one second, hard and cunning the next. Mirren gives Betty a naïve appeal tempered with the excitement of the start of a new adventure. Together they click, belonging together like peanut butter and jelly but nothing is as it seems in “The Good Liar.” The film’s biggest pleasure is (MILD SPOILER) witnessing these two fine actors carefully gauge their performances as the power dynamic between them shifts. Their work provides the thrills the over-plotted story misses.