Who’s Conning Who?
Film Review: “The Good Liar”
An online dating site for seniors leads to a taut game of cat & mouse in this suspenseful crime thriller.
In the meticulously crafted cat & mouse crime thriller The Good Liar, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen shine as an elderly British couple who meet via an online dating site for seniors. As the film opens with parallel sequences of them both as they compose their dating profiles, it’s clear that a certain amount of deception is at work while they tell little white lies about their motives and personal habits, a behaviour which seems totally benign in the age of digital dating. Helen Mirren is Betty McLeish, a recently widowed and retired Oxford professor leading a comfortable life in the suburbs of London. Ian McKellen is Roy Courtnay, whose pedigree — as he describes himself to Betty on their first date — seems muddy from the start. We soon learn that Roy and his ‘business partner’ Vincent (in a solid performance by Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter) are professional con artists, the kind of grifters who go in for the long play. Lacking heart or mercy, Roy and Vincent have perfected the art of the elaborate con, the latest involving a small group of Russian marks in an investment scheme meant to bilk them out of hundreds of thousands of pounds. We soon understand that nothing will stand in the way of their greed, not even murder, as we witness Roy’s depraved indifference to human life in a shocking sequence of vendetta against one of their victims.
But when Roy discovers that Betty is worth millions, he believes his ship has come in, and tells Vincent he plans to take her for all she’s worth. Betty, on the other hand, seems for all intents and purposes a charming and generous woman who is about to be taken for an utter fool, or worse. As we witness their relationship deepening — to the horror of Betty’s suspicious grandson Steven — it’s only a matter of time before the con is exposed. The question is, will Roy go through entirely with his diabolical plan, or might he actually find himself falling in love with this, his latest mark? And can Betty really be as trusting and hungry for companionship as she seems? Or is she herself hiding some darker, ulterior agenda? The suspense plays out over the course of several weeks in which Roy is basically living in Betty’s home. A trip to Berlin is planned as a romantic getaway for two, which (to Roy’s surprise) turns into a threesome when Steven abruptly turns up in the midst of their stay. It’s there that a simple day of siteseeing turns into a trip down memory lane which Roy could never see coming. The stakes don’t end there, however, with a return to England that is anything but a home sweet home.
The Good Liar was helmed by acclaimed writer/director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters; Dreamgirls; and Kinsey) and written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel of the same name by Nicholas Searle. The casting of this film is so spot-on that one could imagine Searle himself envisioning Mirren and McKellen in a film adaptation. With every arched eyebrow or sardonic smile, we imagine these master thespians winking to the audience, as if to say, “just wait, don’t believe everything I’m saying.”
The narrative unwinds like a long rope as we discover the lengths to which Roy will go to get what he wants. And because we see most of this movie from Roy’s perspective, we witness his grubbiness, his amorality, in quite stark terms. Betty is another thing entirely. Her acquiescence to Roy’s charms strike us as jarring because we know him in a way she does not. It’s not until the very end of this suspenseful yarn that Betty emerges in a way no one could predict, especially not Roy himself.
On some level, when the truth is finally revealed, it may seem a bit less than shattering, given how complicated most suspense thrillers have come to be produced. The Good Liar, though, is an absolutely refreshing alternative in that we are reminded that the sins of youth — and a lifetime of remembrance — have a lasting impact that the years don’t soothe. And that it really does take two to tango.
The Good Liar is presently streaming on Amazon Prime, through a subscription to HBO.
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