The Good Liar

When 80-year-old conman Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) meets well-to-do widow Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), he plans to take her for everything she's got. But as the two become close, Betty's grandson (Russell Tovey) grows suspicious about the old man's motives, turning what should be a simple swindle into a battle of wits.

By David Hughes | Posted 7 days ago

From The Sting to Catch Me If You Can and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, con artists have always made great cinema, perhaps because we love to see their smooth antiheroes set up their Swiss-watch schemes, before often coming a cropper — and getting their comeuppance — as the tables start to turn. (For a masterclass in lesser-known conmen, check out David Mamet‘s House Of Games, Heist or The Spanish Prisoner.) Like the swindles they depict, however, such films are tricky to pull off, because the audience will be on alert, actively looking for clues that all is not what it seems — i.e. that they are being taken for a ride.

Even if you know what’s coming, there’s joy in watching two flawless performances from these much-loved veterans.

Now here’s The Good Liar, which, in the hands of director Bill Condon — who worked with McKellen on Gods And Monsters and Mr. Holmes — proves deliciously ripe material for Mirren and McKellen, adapted from the bestselling novel by former British intelligence officer Nicholas Searle. Those familiar with the source won’t be surprised by the various twists and turns of the plot, and anyone with a passing knowledge of con-artist movies may find it easy to guess where it’s going, if not how it will get there. But even if you know what’s coming, there’s joy in watching two flawless performances from these much-loved veteran actors, relishing every nuance of their characters, and every moment of their time on screen. They’re so good, in fact, that the film flags every time one or both of them are off screen, such as during the flashback sequences, with which a more daring adaptation might have dispensed.

That said, Russell Tovey is on excellent form, gamely concealing his distrust and distaste at his grandmother’s new ‘gentleman friend’, and it’s good to see Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter in a less buttoned-down role, as Roy’s cashmere-smooth partner in crime, Vincent. It may be a shaggy-dog story, with occasional lapses into melodrama, but Mirren and McKellen are on sparkling form, and when a film aimed primarily at pensioners employs both the C-word and gory injury detail, you can’t accuse it of being boring.

McKellen and Mirren, sharing the screen for the first time, are exquisitely matched in this slight but enjoyable yarn, which is like watching two magnificent vintage cars in a road race, without minding too much who wins.