When two legendary actors come together, it usually makes for cinematic magic. When it happens during awards season, you can normally bet that it will be top notch prestige fare. So imagine my depression in watching The Good Liar, which winds up being one of the most disappointing movies I’ve seen all year.
In fairness, Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren do an admirable job playing off each other, their performances doing the bulk of the heavy lifting in giving this long con of a movie any sort of credibility (the rest is from the original score by Oscar nominee Carter Burwell). These two aren’t just among the best actors in Britain, but among the best the world has ever seen. These two are acting royalty, not the least of which because they’ve literally played royalty. They joined the ranks of the greatest actors in film history years ago, and it’s a joy to watch them bandy about their lines. I just wish it was all in service of a better story.
Given the title, the film is all about dishonesty. When we first meet the two, it’s on a blind date from an online service for seniors. Before any action has even begun, the two confess to their first deceptions – lying about their names. “Brian” (McKellen) is actually Roy Courtnay, and “Estelle” (Mirren) is really Betty McLeish, both recently widowed. They hit it off instantly, beginning a loving, yet platonic romance, including watching Inglourious Basterds in a theatre, both to reinforce the time setting of the film and provide a hint about revisionist German history. Before you know it, Roy plays up a trick knee making mobility an issue, and as such Betty invites him to live in the guest room of her house.
Of course, Roy is much more than meets the eye. Behind that gruff but soothing voice that once saved Middle-Earth (when he shows up for his date with “Estelle” he asks if he’s late, because he always tries to be on time, and all I could think was that a wizard is never late, nor is he early; he arrives precisely when he means to), Roy is a career con artist, in the process of grifting two clueless investors out of hundreds of thousands of pounds. An amusing scene features a meeting between Roy, his partner Vincent (Jim Carter), and the two marks planning the transaction in a strip club, made doubly funny because the famously gay McKellen is conducting business surrounded by perky, 20-something tits and he has to be convincingly interested in them.
His big score, however, is Betty, who inherited an estate worth an estimated two million quid, using the same scheme as before, by wire transferring funds to an offshore account controlled by computer pads that he can then withdraw to his own bank. Betty’s grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), is instantly suspicious of Roy, and continually cautions her from getting too involved too quickly. Of course, all of this is well within Roy’s earshot, so it’s clear they’re putting on a show for his benefit.
And this is where the film falls apart. Convinced by Betty to take a tour of European cities, including Berlin (which Roy is beyond reluctant to do), Steven confronts Roy about his past, getting him to confess that he is also not Roy Courtnay. This is played as the major twist of the film, but there are still more than 20 minutes to go, so anyone with a basic knowledge of story structure knows we’re not done yet. And even if it was the ending, it in no way explains how Roy became a conman.
Also, if you saw the trailer, you know by that point that there are several scenes and crucial lines used in the marketing that haven’t shown up, so any dramatic weight in the moment is lost. More importantly, while trying to be coy, the trailer gave up way too much information. We know just by one of the taglines (“The perfect mark is his perfect match” or something to that effect) that Betty is going to turn the tables on Roy at some point, so when she accepts his explanation of his past in Berlin at the end of Act II, we know there’s much more to it. We’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop on the big reveal, and as such, we get bored.
The problem is, when it does come, that reveal is completely out of left field and in no way germane to the plot. It’s also tonally illogical, because at one point Betty tells Roy that she long forgave him for his sins, but yet she and Steven (and others) went to such great lengths for revenge that it’s very clear she hasn’t.
While I won’t reveal the ending, I will say that it’s a massive middle finger to the audience in terms of story. The mark of a good mystery is the ability for the audience to play along. Part of the reason films like Murder on the Orient Express (the original, fuck Kenneth Branagh’s remake) are so fun is because there are clues and red herrings to beat the band laced throughout the movie, allowing us to guess until the very end, where even a surprise ending makes logical sense.
There’s no such fun in this movie. When Betty has her moment, she tells Roy the reveal was in plain sight the entire time. I checked the trailer again (because I have no desire to see the actual film a second time), and the “answer” is nowhere to be seen. And even if it was prominently shown in every single scene, it doesn’t count as a clue because there’s no context to it, no connection to the actual plot, until it’s used as the big twist. There are absolutely no clues that point to the actual final deception. To throw this particular ending out in a mystery film with no hints is just intellectually and artistically dishonest. If this were real life, I might argue that that’s the point. There are lies on top of lies on top of lies. But it’s not real. It’s a movie, for which I invested my money to be entertained, and instead I felt cheated.
I really wanted to like this movie. Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren are some of the best actors to have ever graced a screen, and I’ve been big fans of them for my entire adult life. The idea of them matching wits in a game of lies was beyond intriguing, and for whatever it’s worth, they do a good job, really the only thing that prevents this from being a complete failure. Still, it sucks that the effort appears to have been wasted for a shock value ending that comes completely out of nowhere and no one in the audience could know without reading the book upon which the movie is based. Great mysteries have to let the audience in on the game and allow us the chance to solve the puzzle. With this film, it’s like we’re watching a game of chess only for the movie to say, “Fuck you” at the end and call us stupid because they were actually playing checkers the whole time.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s the most disappointed you’ve been at the movies this year? What two actors would you like to see play off one another? Let me know!