“The Good Liar” did not deceive me much. Although it is a pleasure to see two of the best British performers in our time interacting well with each other on the screen, the movie is rather predictable and unsurprising for a number of reasons I cannot possibly reveal here in this review, so I sincerely recommend you not to read the following paragraphs if you are already determined to see the movie just for enjoying its two terrific lead performers.
The movie, which is set in London, 2009, begins with a seemingly accidental meeting between two old single people via a dating website. After having a bit of online conversation, Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) and Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) subsequently meet each other at a posh restaurant, and it looks like their relationship will be developed further as both of them frankly reveal a little more of themselves to each other. Not long after their first meeting in person, Betty takes Roy to her residence located in a quiet suburban neighborhood outside London, and Roy soon comes to stay in Betty’s residence because of a small but inconvenient problem with his leg.
During their first meeting, Roy promised to Betty that he will always be honest to her, but, as many of you have already guessed, he is not very honest about himself from the very beginning. Behind his genial façade, there is a wily, manipulative mind of a longtime professional con man, and Betty is simply another mark to him and his old associate Vincent (Jim Carter). Although they just have obtained considerable amount of money after successfully executing their latest scheme, Roy is ready to work again because, as a consummate criminal, he cannot resist a good opportunity from Betty, who happens to be more affluent than expected.
Not so surprisingly, things soon get a lot more complicated as Roy and Betty’s relationship is developed further than before. Due to a recent serious health problem, Betty comes to depend on Roy more than before, and Roy gradually becomes conflicted about his ongoing scheme, but then we are reminded that, as shown from a couple of scenes in the middle of the story, he is still a criminal who can be quite ruthless for protecting his interest, and he continue to work on Betty step by step for gaining more trust from her.
And there is also Steven (Russell Tovey), who is Betty’s grandson and cares about her a lot as her only close family member. Unlike his grandmother, he regards Roy with some caution and reservation right from when he meets Roy for the first time, and he is not so pleased about what is going on between his grandmother and Roy, though he remains polite as much as possible for his grandmother’s sake.
Once it establishes the setting during its first act, the screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, which is based on the novel of the same name by Nicholas Searle, takes another plot turn during its second act, and that is when the story becomes rather preposterous. After Betty decides that she and Roy should have more fun together before she becomes too ill for that, they go to Berlin together, and Steven is willing to be their free guide because, what do you know, he happens to be a graduate student who has studied the 20th century history of Germany.
Around that narrative point, the movie begins to stumble more than once as showing us a little too much. There is a brief moment which apparently implies that Roy has the past hidden for many years, and we later get a long flashback sequence revealing his longtime secret. In case of one certain short scene involved with some old building in Berlin, it looks inconsequential on the surface, but it is so transparent to us that this scene will play an important role later in the story, and that is the main reason why the eventual finale feels contrived without much surprise.
Anyway, I was entertained to some degree by the good performances of its two charismatic lead performers. Ian McKellen, who previously collaborated with director/co-producer Bill Condon in “Gods and Monsters” (1998) and “Mr. Holmes” (2015), is convincing as alternating between his character’s duplicity and vulnerability, and he has lots of fun with his character especially during the early scenes where his character deftly manipulates certain minor supporting characters to be duped sooner or later. In the opposite position to McKellen, Helen Mirren, who has delighted and entertained us throughout her long acting career just like McKellen, ably handles a number of tricky moments, and she and McKellen are effortless while constantly generating tension throughout the film. As two substantial supporting characters in the story, Jim Carter and Russell Tovey are also effective in their respective parts, and Carter certainly has his own small fun moments during his several scenes with McKellen.
On the whole, “The Good Liar” is fairly watchable, but it does not satisfy me enough because its attempt to fool the audiences is too clear to me right from the start. As your average seasoned moviegoer, I watched numerous excellent movies about confidence game such as “House of Games” (1987), “The Grifters” (1990), “Matchstick Men” (2003), and, yes, “The Sting” (1973), and “The Good Liar” merely looks to me like a minor genre exercise in comparison, but I guess you will probably enjoy it more than me if you have not seen any of these movies mentioned above.