Review: 'The Good Liar'

Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren prove a fine pair of dastardly seniors
DECEPTIVE DUO: Ian McKellen meets his match in Helen Mirren in 'The Good Liar.'

Aging performers can be sad to watch. Right when they should be doing the best work of their careers, they're playing wise codgers and lending their years of integrity to luxury car commercial voiceovers.

Happily, Bill Condon's The Good Liar rejoices in old age's boundless capacity for treachery—a senior citizen's dirty avidity for just one more piece of pie. On the typewritten titles McKellen (Ian) and Mirren (Helen) get last name credits before their first names bleed up through the paper. Do they really need first names at this stage?

It's 2009, and a couple is busily clicking on the keyboards at a computer dating site for people in their sunset years. They tell little white lies as they correspond from their separate apartments. He, Roy, claims not to smoke, as he puffs on a cig; she, Betty denies drinking, as she takes a swig from a glass of white wine.

They meet at a posh London restaurant called The Coach and Carriage. He's a tweedy wrinkly old gentleman with a trustworthy Walt Disney mustache. He practically signals his virtue with semaphore flags: "What I deplore most in life is dishonesty." The old man has a son with whom he's estranged: "I don't approve of his lifestyle. He designs kitchens."

Meek Betty has a grandson, Steven (Russel Tovey) who is in the car outside watching Roy like a hawk—the youth is intimidatingly muscled and his ears stick out as if he's always listening in. After the first date, Roy politely bids good night and departs for a nearby strip club's private lounge. Time for a meeting with a dodgy circle of "financiers," including his main partner in grift (the great Jim Carter). All get ready to launder some Russian money.

After that deal goes bad, Roy could use a hideout. Over the objections of Steven, Betty moves the old man into her guest room, far out in the suburbs. She's in frail health, poor dear, stroke prone; it seems as if the doctor has ordered her to stay in beige surroundings lest colors overexcite her. As they become closer, Betty suggests to her new friend that they take a trip to Berlin.

Thrilling city, Berlin, but it has some unhappy history. In long flashbacks to the bad old days that almost—but don't—knock this film off its axles, we learn more about Roy and that mysterious scar on his neck that he'd rather not talk about.

If you don't suspect The Good Liar's title ought to be plural, you're far younger and more innocent than the two leads. We can predict that Roy, the enterprising weasel, will soon become a cornered rat. Still, McKellen shows once again that he's a virtuoso of villainy. There are a few actors who just revel in rottenness, in deluding people with their blue eyes and their face showing wisdom bourn in pain. McKellen, best known as good old Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings films, has played a riot of sinister characters. Under Condon's direction in Gods and Monsters, McKellen was the daunting James Whale, director of Frankenstein (1931). He stole the X-Men films as the arch villain Magneto, and was a glittering evil Richard III. (The Shakespeare role is a good part for anyone, but McKellen's 1995 take on it included some idiosyncratic crawly moments: since the would-be king has one dead arm, he pulled the ring he offers Lady Anne off his hand with his teeth, proffering it to her on his lolling tongue.)

At 80, the great McKellen glows in false benevolence, groaning bravely about his game leg. Later, pacing rapidly, he flicks a police CCTV camera away with the point of his umbrella so it won't record his next crime. He's a pleasure even in slighter moments of disgust, scowling at a squad of power-walking seniors huffing up the street in front of Betty's house. And his last cowed glare at the audience is a scene of payback worthy of a Lon Chaney melodrama.

At this point, Mirren has kept her personal magic as long as Marlene Dietrich, and with a great deal less artifice; the keenness of eye and firmness of mouth projects enough force to hold this film's wandering stories together. And there's a shrewd final moment where Betty has second thoughts, alarmed by the noises of three little girls in her yard. The girls—perhaps in danger—are there to keep a happy ending from being too happy. A skyscape is all the more perfect for having a cloud in it.

The Good Liar
R; 110 Mins.

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