The Good Liar opens with the smallest act of deception, but it’s a telling one. Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) and Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) are making their own dating profiles, the ultimate space for little white lies. Courtnay takes a drag off his cigarette as he checks “non-smoker,” while McLeish sips her wine, while she clicks on the site that she doesn’t drink. Right away, The Good Liar starts by showing that nothing is as it seems on both sides, and while that’s certainly true in Bill Condon’s latest film, it nearly nullifies the surprise of future twists.
Courtnay and McLeish eventually meet up and begin a friendly relationship, not quite romantic, but more a mutual fondness for each other. After Courtnay’s knee starts giving him trouble – especially a problem since his flat is up several flights of stairs – McLeish invites her new acquaintance to come live at her suburban home. However, Courtnay’s knee is fine. In fact, he’s actually a con artist trying to weasel his way into McLeish’s life and snatch up the millions of pounds in her bank account.
The Good Liar is at its most electric when it focuses on Courtnay’s various cons, and especially reveling in McKellen’s delicious evilness. The Good Liar follows one of his smaller schemes as well, as him and his partner, Vincent (Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter) fraud two men out of thousands of pounds. McKellen’s flipping from feeble old nice guy to conniving monster is a transformation that never gets old, and that dynamic is unfortunately mostly on display when Mirren isn’t around.
Like McKellen, Mirren is also having quite a bit of fun here, even if her role is far more restrained. McLeish is almost suspicious in her lack of suspicions, while her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is wary of Courtnay’s intentions from the beginning. The problem with Mirren’s McLeish though is it’s clear that something is up on her end, and the film mostly becomes a waiting game to see her side of the story.
Condon and writer Jeffrey Hatcher presumably want The Good Liar to feel like twist-after-twist, but its biggest twist is far more inevitable than it should be. The further Hatcher unravels the film’s ultimate mystery, the more it feels completely contrived, as if the mystery needed a big hook that was thrown together at the end. The writing here makes it obvious that twists are on the way and that there’s more than meets the eye with these characters, but the endgame is in fact impossible to figure out. That’s not because the mystery is so good, but because it comes out of nowhere, and the film hasn’t done a good enough job hinting at the direction of where the story is going.
Condon also just doesn’t present this supposedly suspenseful story with much suspense. Revealing that Courtnay is more than he originally seems, as early as he does, sucks plenty of tension out of this story, and again, the fact that there’s clearly more going on from the get-go waters down the film’s ultimate twists.
Despite the inability to build tension successfully, or the way the film fumbles its ending with a contrived and tacky conclusion, The Good Liar’s greatest joys come from watching McKellen and Mirren sink their teeth into such dark and unexpected roles. The Good Liar is solid character work trapped in a mediocre mystery.