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Pros and cons – ‘The Good Liar’

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In a world full of franchises and IP-driven cinematic entertainment, certain types of films have fallen out of favor with the biggest studios. That’s not a judgment so much as a simple statement of fact.

And it’s too bad, because if Hollywood allowed itself to keep an open mind, we might get more efforts like the new dramatic thriller “The Good Liar.” It’s a movie whose tight, taut tone is brought forth by the talented likes of director Bill Condon behind the camera and the delightful central pairing of Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren. Films like this – films interested in neither billion-dollar box office or scads of awards attention – are thinner on the ground than ever.

It’s not a perfect movie – things get more than a little convoluted at times and the pacing has moments where it lags a bit – but its relatively minor issues are more than overcome by McKellan and Mirren, who are cinematic treasures and are clearly enjoying themselves immensely. When you’ve got that kind of charm and charisma on display, the rest more or less takes care of itself.

Roy Courtnay (McKellan) is a con artist. He and his partner Vincent (Jim Carter, “Downton Abbey”) have a number of grifts and schemes, all dedicated to relieving the crooked and/or naïve of their money via gaining access to their finances.

In 2009, Roy embarks on one of his classic schemes via an online dating site. His target is Betty McLeish (Mirren), a retired history professor whose husband died a year previously and who has considerable assets – north of two million pounds. And Roy wants that money.

And so, Roy enters into a full-court press with all of the deceptive charm he can muster. It isn’t long before he’s manipulated Betty into taking him into her home and looking after him, even as he looks after her. Even the obvious suspicions of Betty’s grandson Stephen (Russell Tovey, TV’s “Years and Years”) aren’t enough to convince her of Roy’s ill intent … though the audience is made well aware of the sinister machinations Roy proves capable of undertaking.

The relationship progresses, reaching a point where Roy convinces Betty to place all of her money with his in a joint investment account – one ostensibly run by Vincent, posing as an accountant. Despite Stephen’s protestations, she agrees to do so.

But there’s far more going on here than meets the eye. As we learn more about Roy’s past and how he became the man he is today, we also start to suspect that this seemingly simple scheme is a hell of a lot more complex than anyone anticipated.

“The Good Liar” is a surprisingly dark film. It is the sort of thriller that revels in the twists and turns it can throw at you, wrinkles buried beneath the surface until the time when they unexpectedly burst forth. Granted, some of these twists are clearly, almost blatantly telegraphed. Others, however, come out of left field in a way that prove entertaining even as they somewhat strain plausibility. Everything more or less adds up, just not necessarily in the way you might have expected when you took your seat.

The first half of this film is a pretty straightforward con artist story, but things take a few drastic turns on the back side. There are moments where it pushes the limits of credulity, but it’s worth your while to just take it as it comes and go along for the ride.

Let’s be clear – Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren could just sit in a room and read the phone book at each other for two hours and it would be watchable. These two are as good as it gets. And there’s a real joy in the gusto with which they dig into this script’s pulpiness; it is dark and weird and over-the-top … and they clearly love it. They’re constantly engaging on multiple levels, embracing the nature of the narrative; they elevate the material without ever seeming to place themselves above it. I honestly don’t know if this movie works with any other central pairing.

Carter is great as the no-nonsense Vincent, bringing a sophisticated gruffness to the party. Tovey has some strong moments as the suspicious grandson. And there are a number of folks who appear in just a handful of scenes – mostly con victims and co-conspirators – that give the whole thing a lovely sense of completeness. When schemes work on the big screen, they’re tremendous fun – and these schemes work.

“The Good Liar” is a perfect example of a movie that Hollywood rarely makes anymore, a smallish film starring older actors intended to simply tell a story. It’s not about servicing some mega-franchise cinematic universe, nor is it looking to win little trophies. It just wants to be what it is – a fun, occasionally clumsy thriller starring two exceptional talents enjoying each other immensely. It won’t make a billion dollars or take home any Oscars, but it’s a fine time at the movies. And really, what’s wrong with that?

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 19 November 2019 06:55

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