The Good Liar (2019)

350 The Good Liar

To talk of giving the plot away for The Good Liar (2019) implies it has a unitary narrative that can be easily divulged. The film’s trailer leads the deception that ‘the good liar’ is an old-school scoundrel trying to swindle a wealthy female victim, albeit with a touch of romance. However, from its opening minutes, everyone we meet and everything we see is not what we are led to believe.

The starting point is simple enough and rather quaint given the seniority and standing of its principal actors. A couple on the high side of seventy meet for the first time after online introductions through a dating site. Setting the tone for later developments, names become temporary facades as both the man (Ian McKellen) and the woman (Helen Mirren) soon confess to each other that they used fake names online and their ‘real’ names are Roy and Betty. After some charming banter, Roy feigns injury and Betty invites him to stay at her flat.

A romance of sorts develops while Betty’s suspicious and protective grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) plays the foil to Roy’s deceptions. Multiple narrative layers open up: Roy and Betty open a joint bank account to combine their wealth; Betty reveals health issues; Roy juggles multiple scams with other victims; and the academic historian Steven sets a trap for Roy that reveals yet further twists, turns, and darker storylines. While the swindle unfolds in unexpected directions, it turns out that Roy and Betty have connected backgrounds. Film narratives do not get much more complicated and convoluted than this.

Fine acting by McKellen and Mirren keeps this film interesting, although some viewers may feel they are performing amalgams of their previous roles and drawing on their fame as icons of British theatre. The ancient art where venerable performers can express thoughts and feeling simply by rearranging a few deep facial wrinkles, raising an eyelid or a furrowed brow, is becoming rare. At times the directing struggles to hold every piece of the jigsaw puzzle in place, and multiple flashbacks and story side tracks strain to keep the viewer informed. At the end of it all, however, the grand reveal seems contrived and implausible.

Those looking for higher narrative purpose may find it in the tension between vengeance and justice, or the struggle of good over evil, or the assertion of feminist agency. On the other hand, fans of the thriller genre simply looking for unpredictability will find that The Good Liar offers much to keep them guessing.

3 half

Director:  Bill Condon

Stars:  Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter