Review: The Good Liar should have been a better thriller

THE GOOD LIAR (Bill Condon). 109 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (November 15). See listing. Rating: NN

Roger Ebert liked to quote his colleague Gene Siskel when discussing a particular sort of cinematic disappointment: “Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?”

I found myself thinking of Siskel’s question while watching The Good Liar, Bill Condon’s snoozy thriller that pairs Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. These are two of the most engaging actors of their age – and fascinating people besides – and I would surely have enjoyed watching them trade stories over sandwiches more than I did this movie.

McKellen is a gentleman con artist operating in 2009 London, and Mirren is his latest mark, a wealthy widow. They meet for a drink at a pub he opens with the confession that his name is not Bill, but Roy – can’t be too careful, don’t you know. She smiles and makes the same apology: she’s not Estelle, but Betty. And now they know one another, and they can go see Inglourious Basterds together, and Roy may begin worming his way into her heart, her home and her chequebook.

It’s a familiar, comfortable setup, and one that suits its stars very nicely. McKellen’s plummy warmth can easily feel like a front, and Mirren’s steely smile has a similar quality. It’s also a pleasure to see both of them playing characters who simply exist in the world as senior citizens, rather than pretending they’re a decade younger or sprightlier than they are. Their performances set the film’s unhurried pace, letting us ease into the story while suggesting greater depths ahead. But there aren’t.

Oh, things happen. There are secrets hidden and lies told, a suspicious loved one (Years And Years‘ Russell Tovey) to dissuade and an accomplice (Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter) to deploy. There’s a meeting in a sexy dance bar to give older viewers a bit of frisson, and a flowerpot is smashed in the night, because it’s a British mystery and that’s just what’s required. And through it all, we’re aware that Mirren and McKellen could be doing so much more, and should be.

Condon has been working with McKellen for over two decades now – he directed him to his first Oscar nomination in Gods And Monsters, and they reunited to considerably less fanfare in Mr. Holmes and that awful live-action remake of Beauty And The Beast. This latest project, adapted from Nicholas Searle’s novel, is not as bad as their last – no one bursts into song, for instance – but neither does The Good Liar ever burst into anything. It just sleepwalks its way to a supposedly ironic conclusion, earned morally (I suppose) but not narratively.

In its crucial moments, when revelations should snap into place, the information lands with a shrug the misdeeds at its core are truly horrible, and rooted in an especially ugly time in world history… but Condon handles them so clumsily that they seem almost incidental, even as we watch them take place.

And as for logic, well, what of it? This is a movie where a character improvises the ingenious murder of a man decades younger in a matter of seconds, and yet cannot figure a way out of a scuffle with another person of roughly the same age.

“It’s been right in front of you the whole time,” someone says, because someone always says that in this sort of story, but the greatest failing of The Good Liar is that it only works if you don’t pay close attention. I hope the catering was good, anyway.


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