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The Good Liar

Released 2019. Director: Bill Condon

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO CALL SOMEONE A GOOD LIAR? GOOD as in competent, skilful, clever; or good in the moral sense, upright, kind and blameless? Is lying ever justifiable even if the liar has ‘good’ intent? Let’s meet some people who are masters at making you believe anything they say.

Ian McKellen plays Roy Courtnay, a debonair conman oozing with charm to the unsuspecting. Along with his accomplice Vincent (Jim Carter), he’s a consummate scammer staging convincing scenarios to trap deep-pocket suckers and if the situation calls for it, he won’t hesitate to throw someone under a train.

Roy’s latest target is the wealthy Betty McLeish, a trusting, generous and naïve widow new to online dating played by Helen Mirren. It really doesn’t take much effort for Roy to worm himself into Betty’s life and move in to her guest room, despite reservations from Betty’s grandson Stephen (Russell Tovey). Not wasting any time, the couple plan to pool their assets jointly, under the advice of Vincent, posing as Roy’s accountant.

The movie makes it clear Roy is the bad guy from the very beginning. We see a well-planned investment scam unfold from a gentlemen’s club to a posh office, a charade complete with a cast of Russian millionaires and the police to fool the investors. Surely a nice old lady who lives alone is no challenge for the seasoned player.

Roy’s complacency is what drives a continuous skepticism in the mind of the audience. This is all too easy, you’d think. What is it we don’t know about Betty? Is she lying and waiting to turn the table on Roy? Is her ordinary homeliness a facade and an entrapment? What's her story?

I can tell you now that the truth behind the elaborate con game is not something the audience can fully deduce based on what we’ve seen. Unless you’ve read the novel by Nicholas Searle, there’s no point trying to be Sherlock Holmes. This is the kind of movie that spoon-feeds you all the vital details with someone giving an exposition at the end and in so doing, robs you of the satisfaction of working out the plot yourself along the way.

First, it’s Stephen the “brilliant researcher”, as his grandma describes him, exposing Roy’s past by narrating the history back to him (and us). Then, in the final confrontation, Betty sits in her chair explaining everything to Roy. I mean, to us. This involves a flashback to their teenage years in Berlin and it’s impossible for the audience to work out motives and connect the dots beforehand, because we have not been given all the dots.

When all is explained away and every suspicion accounted for, including a stranger hanging around outside Betty’s house, The Good Liar probably deserves a “good” grade for effort but would score better if we got the chance to play detective ourselves instead of being presented with the evidence in a neat package.

Despite the issues of plausibility requiring a measure of stretching, Bill Condon manages to keep the proceedings under control without us thinking it’s all getting preposterous. The script by Jeffrey Hatcher could have allowed for more audience participation, and also turned Stephen and Vincent into more suspicious characters, just to thicken the plot.

The main reason most people choose to see The Good Liar is no doubt the chance to see the pair of acting luminaries onscreen together for the first time, and for this you won’t be disappointed. If revenge thriller is your cup of English Breakfast, then Sir Ian and Dame Helen, who have no problem making us invested in their twisty lies, together make this game of cat and mouse twice as good.


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