Mirren, McKellen good in ‘Liar,’ but can’t detract from too-twisty story

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 11/15/19
  There aren’t any better reasons to see “The Good Liar” than Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen. The film’s knighted stars inhabit the frame like master craftsmen, slowed …

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Mirren, McKellen good in ‘Liar,’ but can’t detract from too-twisty story

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There aren’t any better reasons to see “The Good Liar” than Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen. The film’s knighted stars inhabit the frame like master craftsmen, slowed a tad by time but imbued with an enhanced acumen. There aren’t any flamboyant flourishes here, just a honed sense of style and delivery.

Unfortunately, Mirren and McKellen may be the only reasons to watch this adaptation of a Nicholas Searle novel, which doesn’t effectively make the transition from page to screen. The ill-fitting story lurches from winding caper to unlikely historical melodrama without ever effectively establishing itself as either.

Roy Courtnay (McKellen) is an aging con man who, with his longtime partner-in-crime Vincent (Jim Carter), runs his marks through elaborate deceptions designed to convince them to part with their finances. In the opening sequence, Roy and Vincent spearhead a plan whereby two purported partners who think they’re in on the grift actually end up being the targets, losing €100,000 each in the process. But while Roy might appear to be rascally old man, he’s actually quite sociopathic, prone to violence when it suits his purposes.

Roy’s go-to con game is befriending wealthy older women and charming away their nest eggs. His latest mark is Betty (Mirren), a widow who has around two million pounds socked away and children we never see (for some unknown reason). Roy worms his way into Betty’s affections and eventually her home, a bland but elegant abode where she lives the life of a dowdy septuagenarian. Meanwhile, Roy’s arrival meets with dismay from Betty’s suspicious grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey).

Roy and Vincent try to sell Betty on the tax benefits of pooling her money into a joint account with Roy. Meanwhile, Steven joins Roy and Betty on a holiday to Germany, where Steven reveals information he has uncovered about Roy’s background. It’s here when “The Good Liar” gets too twisty for its own good. First, Steven confronts Roy about his true identity and World War II backstory, a decision that makes no sense once the film’s big reveal establishes every character’s true motives. Then, the ultimate climax is engineered by several sudden, overly expositional flashbacks that come out of nowhere and feel disjointed from the rest of the film.

This is McKellen’s third collaboration with director Bill Condon, after “Gods and Monsters” and “Mr. Holmes,” which was also the last screenwriting credit for playwright Jeffrey Hatcher before this film. There are few dull moments in “The Good Liar,” but the groans and eyerolls it triggers spawn from an abrupt and preposterous third-act pivot that proves to be the only thing that could detract from two satisfying star performances.

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