As the opening credits to “The Good Liar” roll across the screen, a typewriter font scrolling each credit, director Bill Condon inserts flashes of two people filling out an online dating profile. We quickly realize he is setting the stage for an exciting thriller, the rapid cutting away of each answer defines Betty McLeish, played by Dame Helen Mirren and Roy Courtnay played by Sir Ian McKellen.
Both characters are unassuming in their answers, but the intent is set such that they would meet each other. We don’t know much about either character other than their online answers. Through Mirren and McKellen’s performances and brilliant cinematography by Tobias Schliessler, we get a sense of nervousness, butterflies in the stomach if you will.
Jeffrey Hatcher, who adapted Nicholas Searle’s novel of the same name, asserts some quick reveals about each of the characters attributes as if we’re watching a chess game unfold. If that seems corny, it isn’t. Rather, it serves to build the suspense as each of the characters relaxes around one another.
That’s Condon’s gift to this film as he uses the established tension to carry the story forward; a tension that relies, perhaps a bit too much on the audience trusting what’s on the screen in front of them as we learn more about Roy, who it turns out is a con-man.
McKellen’s performance as Roy is exceptionally well nuanced balancing the two faces he carries – the first as a potential mate for Betty and the second as a low-level con man. As both, lies come very easy to him, but we also get the sense that something more is amiss as he uses his charm and wit to sway Betty.
Hatcher and Condon infuse Roy with an air of danger courtesy of Vincent (Jim Carter), Roy’s business partner. A casual flippancy permeates their business relationship that the film never directly explains as Roy confides in Vincent that he can take more risks with Betty. Vincent urges caution, even though their business dealings with a group of Russian investors raises a specter of danger and intrigue about the man who seeks a quick buck.
On the periphery of each of the twists and turns is Steven (Russell Tovey), Betty’s grandson and a student researcher. Steven shows restraint as he tries to warn his grandmother not to trust Roy’s intentions.
Ms. Mirren plays Betty with a face that could rival Doyle Brunson: she keeps her hold card close at hand as Roy’s breadcrumbs lead her through the story’s twists and turns. Those twists and turns make for a strong, taut thriller.
Roy’s smugness is his own downfall as the twists and turns reveal his true nature. The actual reveal is quite ingenious and I don’t mind saying that I smiled when he gets his just comeuppance.
The story asks two questions of us; first, Betty asks when they first meet, “Don’t you find that it’s always the same?” to which Roy nonchalantly replies, “You mean the anticipation, followed by the letdown?”
The ultimate reveal relies on all of the twists and turns working correctly. As a character, Roy’s idiosyncrasies don’t align with the outcome. It’s not a fault of Mr. McKellen’s performance, but rather a function of the reliance on all of the twists and turns to carry his story to a logical conclusion.
The second question speaks to relationships and to Betty’s nature when she asks Roy, “Do you know who you are?” Roy stops dead in his tracks as if he’s been caught before she continues saying, “You’re the only person who makes me feel that I’m not alone.” Roy’s roguishness and charm work on all of us, just a little too well.
The intrigue in “The Good Liar” is set by the twists and turns along with exceptional performances from Ms. Mirren and Mr. McKellen, but the intrigue is let down by a reveal that seems out of place for the characters.
“The Good Liar”
Directed by: Bill Condon
Screenplay by: Jeffrey Hatcher, based on “The Good Liar” by: Nicholas Searle
Starring: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russel Tovey, Jim Carter
R, 110 minutes, A Warner Bros/New Line and BRON Creative Release