SINGAPORE — The Good Liar opens with two people setting up accounts on a dating website. One of them is Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen), a career con man who looks for rich, old, vulnerable and lonely widows to try and swindle them out of their money. Widows just like Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), in fact, whose husband passed away a year ago, leaving her with only her grandson Stephen (Russell Tovey) for company.
With the help of his co-conspirator Vincent (Jim Carter), Roy woos the grieving widow and quickly insinuates himself into her life, despite Stephen’s many protestations. As the affair progresses, Betty even invites Roy to move into her guest bedroom, while Roy inches ever nearer to getting his hands on Betty’s fortune.
Based on the novel of the same name by Nicholas Searle, The Good Liar seems like the exact sort of Oscar bait that studios are so fond of releasing at this time of the year, in hopes of scoring a couple of nominations during award season. Casting McKellen and Mirren as Roy and Betty respectively is quite a bit of a coup, and there is an embarrassment of acting riches on display here.
McKellen plays Roy as an impatient, unabashedly greedy con man who simply can’t bear to live the quiet life that Betty has settled down into. With a mere furrow of his brow, he manages to communicate a multitude of expressions simultaneously, revealing what he is really thinking whenever Betty turns away.
Similarly, Mirren turns in a rather subtle but spectacular performance as Betty, who seems like the quintessential mild-mannered English grandmother who craves companionship. Yet there are always hints — a glance here, a slight hesitation there — that point to other things at play.
Unfortunately, the rather mediocre plot fails to match the brilliance of its protagonists. Director Bill Condon, who directed McKellen to previous acclaim in Gods and Monsters and Mr Holmes, sets a slow, sometimes plodding pace for a thriller that takes a very long time to get into gear. It’s a good thing that McKellen and Mirren are able to carry a scene full of long, pregnant pauses, because these occur far too often, and would’ve collapsed in the hands of lesser actors.
Without giving away any spoilers, the movie’s deus ex machina appears suddenly and forcefully, and one could be forgiven if they were confused by the unravelling of a very knotting plot. The denouement was one that came out of nowhere and felt a little contrived, but credit must be given to both McKellen and Mirren for their impressive performances.
Ultimately, The Good Liar only succeeds on the strength of the cast, rather than the convoluted narrative, which is a shame because it has all the elements for what should be a blockbuster. As it is, it is a quiet sort of movie that should serve as a warning that if an investment sounds too good to be true, it’s usually a trap.
Score: 3/5 stars
The Good Liar opens in cinemas 21 November, 2019 (Singapore).