*******Spoilers for The Good Liar below*******
In 2009, a con artist named Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) signs up for a dating service with the aim of finding his next mark. Before long, he starts dating a widow named Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), much to the chagrin of Betty’s grandson Stephen (Russell Tovey). Roy continues his con-man ways, setting up schemes here and there along with his partner Vincent (Jim Carter) as he cons Betty into letting him live with her. After some time as mere companions, they take a trip to Berlin that reveals Roy’s real name is Hans, he stole the identity of Roy Courtnay after Courtnay died following World War II. Betty is surprisingly okay with this and after returning home, seemingly walks right into Roy’s trap to con her out of her millions.
However, after Roy puts up his own fortune as collateral, Betty reveals that she’s really a German woman named Lili. Hans raped Lili as a young girl and, afraid of being caught, accused her father of being a traitor. This indirectly led to the death of Lili’s mother and sisters and upended her life. Despite his best efforts to weasel his way out of it, Lili leaves him in the house with two former marks who beat him into a vegetative state. Lili ends the film smiling over her family at a large estate while Roy sits alone in a medical facility, unable to even drink water on his own.
The best reason to go see The Good Liar is Mirren and McKellen. The two veteran actors pull out all the stops in the thriller. And it’s obvious from their first meeting early on that they’re enjoying the hell out of their roles. McKellen is surprisingly sinister for an actor whose recent career has been filled with wise wizards and weird-looking man-cats. He toes the line between sympathetic and down-right evil with ease and to the point that the audience is probably still rooting for him up until the final few minutes. Mirren is much less sinister in her performance but one hundred times more calculating. It’s not obvious from the jump that she’s up to something but there are enough hints along the way that the final reveal feels like a pot of water slowly simmering over and not a wallop to the face. Though, it is still a bit clunky. And that’s really the only issue with the film.
Though it’s short runtime allows for a brisk pace, an extra 10-20 minutes could’ve delivered one of the best thrillers of the decade. Mirren’s character specifically could’ve used a few extra sideways glances or asides like McKellen’s got. Though she gets the last laugh and her final soliloquy garnered cheers, she feels slightly underused in the role. A bit more time and the supremely talented actress could’ve delivered a nuanced, vengeful performance for the ages. In terms of auxiliary players, there’s really not many to mention. Russell Tovey as Lili/Betty’s “grandson” was pitch-perfect as the fall guy for all the audiences’ frustrations, making her rug pull that much better; and Jim Carter isn’t bad as Roy/Hans’ right-hand man.
Overall, The Good Liar is compelling and rewatchable as hell due mostly to the incredibly fun performances from both McKellen and Mirren. It could’ve used a bit more time to flesh out Betty/Lili’s plan and add a bit of nuance there. But, regardless, it’s a competent thriller with an ending that’ll leave you reeling.
The Good Liar is in theaters now.