My Verdict | ★★☆☆☆
The Good Liar opens with a harmless ‘catfish’ and over the course of its 110-minute running time, steadily escalates to a deadly one. Overall, Bill Condon’s con-thriller is an entertaining if ultimately silly affair that tries to hide a few barbs beneath its obvious conceit.
Readers be warned: potential spoilers.
When widowed pensioner Betty (Helen Mirren) meets Roy (Ian McKellen), he appears the perfect catch. Charming, kindly and self-deprecating, he’s easy to talk to and reminisce with. Soon he’s moved into Betty’s new bungalow, despite the protests from devoted grandson Steven (Russell Tovey). She’s the perfect catch for Roy too- but not how she thinks. A long-term professional conman, Roy spies an easy mark in this well-to-do single woman living pretty much on her own.
Roy’s a downright rotter though- one foot in this exploitative scheme, the other in the supposed London underworld. Out of Betty’s view, he’s hails cabs to seedy strip-clubs; has hired heavies brutalise unruly subordinates; and pulls off wily financial exploits with partner-accountant Vince (Jim Carter). The unscrupulous octogenarian lies as easily as he breathes. And eyeing Betsy’s long-saved millions, Roy intends to pull off his most profitable con yet.
Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Nicholas Searle’s novel is predictably plotted and the impending twists are neither surprising, nor that shocking. These sharp turns in the narrative are more incredulous than involving, even despite the topicality of one disturbing revelation. It merely leans on the provocative emotional effects of those historical tropes and emotional traumas than delve considerately into them. The revelations are given gravity mind you, but it all comes across as very, very contrived. ‘Hitchcockian’ it certainly ain’t.
McKellen and Mirren seem to be enjoying the material nonetheless and their deceitful interplay is terrific fun. McKellen’s flamboyant performance just chews through the upholstery of Betty’s dour suburban bungalow. On the turn of a corner, he can drop the twinkly old man schtick (complete with sleeveless jumpers and consoling gestures) for his truly foul-mouthed scoundrel (he revels in spitting out the word ‘cunt’). Neither the ruse nor the apparently seasoned criminal underneath is ever convincing, but it does allow McKellen to let loose some delightful double-entendres (‘I feel a sudden desire to get away’ Roy tells an unsuspecting Betsy after dispatching a goon in the Underground) and the odd comedic routine (McKellen makes such a mountain out of an fake limp you wonder how he’s fooling anybody). In fairness, the star does keep us regarding Roy as utterly loathsome. He’s undeserving of a scintilla of sympathy right to the end.
Mirren’s poker-face performance rarely cracks despite the fact the audience are going to be suspicious of this quiet, unassuming widow. From the trailer, taglines and even title, we’re constantly expecting she might be the one telling a few lies of her own. Mirren doesn’t let on too though, remaining genuinely beguiling and unassuming throughout.
Despite putting forward multiple layers of deceit (no doubt repeat viewings would reveal all the hints and subtext- I’ll pass), The Good Liar is best enjoyed at face-value. The stars’ sparky chemistry, Condon’s stylish production values and lively pace make The Good Liar a fun watch on a Sunday afternoon perhaps (on ITV3).