Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Passing Tramp at the Movies--Old Sinners Cast Long Shadows: The Good Liar (2019)

first date: Roy and Betty (Ian Mckellen and Helen Mirren)

When The Good Liar opens, it's late at night in England sometime in 2009 (yes, it's backdated a decade for a reason) and we see two elderly people in their separate dwellings using an internet dating service.  Like a lot of people on such services, one suspects, they are slipping in a few fibs here and there in their accounts of themselves: he says he doesn't smoke, as he puffs away a cigarette, she see says she doesn't drink, as she quaffs a glass of red wine.  So in a sense they are both liars--which of them will prove the good one?

Early on we find that the old man, Roy Courtnay (Ian Mckellen, 80), is not a merely an incidental white liar, but the deepest dyed of villains.  He's a con artist involved, often in tandem with his oily partner in crime, Vincent (Downton Abbey's Jim Carter), in multiple scams.  His latest one is bilking the aforementioned woman on the dating service--wealthy widow Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren, 74)--of her tidy little fortune.  Betty is no fool--hey, she's Helen Mirren--but gradually she allows Roy to inveigle himself further and further into to her life, to the expressed dismay of her humorless postgraduate history student grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), who fears this charming old man may be up to no good. 

Before you know it, however, Betty has allowed Roy to move into her house (though she resists his fumbling sexual blandishments) and the two are planning a lovely trip together to the continent, though they have some disagreement about which cities they should visit there.  (Ah, the carefree days before COVID-19!)

Of course we know Steven is right about Roy.  He isn't up to any good.  But just what is everyone else up to?

always beware
a determined Englishman with an umbrella
This is the sort of film you can't really adequately discuss with resorting to spoilers, which I am trying to avoid, as it was released in theaters only last year and only recently came out on DVD, so I am assuming  a lot of people have not seen it.  Critical consensus on the film seemed to be high on the distinguished lead actors, but kind of meh overall.  Myself, I liked it quite a bit, as someone with an admitted susceptibility to these sorts of genre films.

Certainly the leads are very appealing.  Two time Oscar nominee Mckellen dominates much of the film and is superb at conveying both the seemingly sweet-natured old duffer widower guise he adopts for the con's sake and the ruthless, knowing schemer that he really is. 

Admittedly, that divine, Oscar-winner, Queen Helen Mirren, takes a back seat to Ian Mckellen for much of the film, but she comes into her own later on, when she finally gets to go full Helen.  And then some.

A lot of people see this as a twist film.  It's based on the novel of the same title by author Nicholas Searle which frankly I haven't read, so I can't say how that aspect was played in the book; but the film boldly teases the question: Is Betty up to something herself?  After all this is Helen Mirren we're talking about!  Some other actress, someone like Imelda Staunton (63), say, though over a decade younger than Mirren would have been more plausible as a malleable, naive widow.  Mirren isn't even really "deglammed" in this film.  (No doubt a hard task!)

Even expecting, as I was, some sort of twist along these lines, however, I still found the plot most interesting to follow, having as it does some neat twists and turns. 

Admittedly, The Good Liar is not on par with director Bill Condon's 1998 collaboration with Ian Mckellen, Gods and Monsters (a brilliant bio film about eccentric gay horror director James Whale) but I think it's at least on the level of Condon's and Mckellen's 2015 mystery film of sorts, Mr. Holmes.  (Yes, it's about Sherlock.)  Condon and Mckellen are building up rather a nice body of work together as director and lead actor respectively.

glum grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) warns widowed Betty
that she's being taken for a ride by a charming rogue

It was also nice to see out actor Russell Tovey in a film as well.  With his jug ears and pug nose he's the "endearingly ugly" type--except he's not really ugly--who might have been cast as a stolid leading man in British Golden Age mystery films.  He did have a supporting role in Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun, but that was nearly two decades ago, when he was still a teenager.

To be sure, The Good Liar, as befits its subject, has a nastier edge than those earlier, poignantly bittersweet films, especially in its final ironic moments, but I found it an appealing twisty murder thriller for those as likes 'em.  But don't just take my word for it.  Never trust anyone.  See it for yourself!


  1. Replies
    1. I think the word is "adorkable." And, yes, he is indeed. ;) It's was a nice casting soupcon to have him in this in a supporting capacity.

  2. Saw this on the big screen back when we could go to the movies. [Missing them a bit too much. Thankfully, there's streaming and DVDs from Netflix.] Couldn't pass it up. Really was in it for Mirren and McKellan. I was pretty sure of the end but the motivations and dark secret in the past, of course, were not aspects of the story I could have linked up, let alone dream up. I got a huge Marathon Man vibe from Ian as if he were channeling Olivier as the sadistic Nazi dentist. Even some of the costuming was similar. That trench coat!

    Overall, I very much enjoyed it. It was a cathartic thriller which we rarely get these days. Excellent performances. I looked into the writer and the book but I decided to pass. The movie experience was perfection for me.