The Good Liar
Director: Bill Condon
Writer: Jeffrey Hatcher from a novel by Nicholas Searle
Cinematographer: Tobias A. Schliessler
Editor: Virginia Katz
A couple of widowers, Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) and Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), with secrets to keep start a relationship. One or both may be confidence artists playing a high stakes game.
I think with stories about grifters, there’s almost always a risk that the mark is usually going to end up the better grifter.
The twist in this movie is more about motivation. It’s pretty clear from the opening that both are grifting each other. The graphic design and title of the film really almost telegraph that Mirren is going to own McKellen by the end of the film. I really just found myself enjoying the journey while I waited for that inevitable reveal. Just because the plot points and conclusion are obvious doesn’t mean the details won’t be fascinating, and they are.
I like the fact that we have a really very well made ‘middle’ picture in theaters, with ‘acting royalty’ (which makes me wince a bit to type, not because it isn’t true but because it feels so cliché) playing septuagenarian confidence artists. There are nice bits about aging, little gags about how feebleness can be faked to gain sympathy, and that in reality, women get wiser with age, and men still live under the delusion that they’re still 18, merely playing at being adult.
Both Mirren and McKellen own this film.
Mirren is on brand, when she hands McKellen his ass, it’s pure badassery. She sealed her brand of steely unfuckwithableness back in the 70s when she coldly served Michael Parkinson his nuts on his talk show, and did it to him again nearly 40 years later. She’s the queen.
McKellen plays the arrogant and sociopathic Courtnay beautifully, shifting in and out of multiple personas while juggling two cons simultaneously with his partner, Vincent (Jim Carter). When he trips on his own ass, his bumbling desperation is a masterpiece of comedic acting.
Bill Condon does a really good job of not getting in the way of the story and performances here. Smart move when dealing with Dame Mirren and Sir McKellen. He gives them room to breathe and it shows. However, I feel he may have done this at the expense of setting up any real tension, sacrificing tone for performance. Some of the issue lies in the source material, too. When you reveal the con so early, and set it between two people, it’s pretty clear that there’s gonna be a switcharoo. So, if you’ve figured that out, you really need to shift gears and go along with the ride. The payoff is what it is, but this film is really about watching these two legends duke it out with wit and deception.
So. I don’t think many people willingly go to see films like this in theaters any more. I don’t want to echo Marty Scorsese too much here, but he has a point, I think, about spectacle kind of numbing us to other little spectacles, like how a tight script and amazing performances can be as stunning as any effects shot. There’s room for both, and I’m not gonna pick a side, but I think that if you’re someone who enjoys superhero films and you want to stretch your tastes a bit outside of that comfort zone, this is a pretty cool flick to do that with.
Check this one out, my lackeys, you’ll dig.
If you don’t, I’m gonna graft your head to a tapir.
Sad attempt at a pull quote: Legends Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen duke it out spectacularly in this otherwise by the numbers con artist story.
The Abominable Doctor Abominable