Published Nov 15, 2019Ten minutes deep and on the face of it, The Good Liar is about love.
Indeed, director Bill Condon and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler situate the picture deeply in the ways of traditional meandering British romantic dramas, à la The Deep Blue Sea — with its hazy lingering over door frames and the clacking footsteps over cobblestone streets.
Ian McKellen plays seasoned and terrifying con man Roy Courtnay, who meets Helen Mirren's Betty McLeish on a dating site. Courtnay genuinely seems to be looking for love, or something like it, when he discovers that McLeish is sitting comfortably, and rather boringly, on millions. So Courtnay decides to do what he does best, get every last pound off McLeish. But things are much more complex than that — as McLeish notes at the film's denouement, "It's deeper than it looks."
Deeper and with much higher stakes. The film oscillates between past and present, going back to WWII Berlin to supply Courtnay's Nazi-hunting past, to shed light on his sinister character — he's always been this grisly. McLeish's backstory, however, isn't told — and indeed, can't be told until the very end, lest it loosen the twist at the finale — and it's this storytelling difficulty that makes it seem as though the denouement is not earned by the rest of the film. This is not to say that the ending is not good — it is, it's very exciting and satisfying — but it is to say that because McLeish's story has not been threaded throughout the plot, the end could've been anything at all.
What this is all to say is this: though Mirren gets top billing, the movie is much more about McKellan's character, and this is a failure on the movie's part.
That being said, the story is good and keen. On one of their earlier dates, McLeish and Courtnay go to see Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino's Nazi-killing, wish-fulfillment extravaganza. The Good Liar takes some inspiration from Tarantino and is a satisfying though terrifyingly sinister wish-fulfillment picture that Mirren survives stunningly.