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Much has been made about the incredulous fact that gangster epic The Irishman marks the first-time director Martin Scorsese and Al Pacino worked together on a film. This year however sees another surprising inaugural union between two cinematic titans. It may sound hard to believe, but grey-pound crime drama The Good Liar is actually the first ever motion picture in which British acting royalty Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren share the screen together. It’s also the first time they’ve made something profoundly mediocre with each other.
McKellen is an aging conman named Roy Courtney. Mirren plays the seemingly pious widow Betty McLeish. After meeting via an internet dating site, the two begin a “companionship” as McLeish puts it. In reality, Roy has machinations to suck his wealthy lady friend’s account dry after slowly but surely earning her trust. When he’s not sweet talking his way to a fortune, Roy is conducting elaborate schemes involving offshore banks and mock police crackdowns in order to swindle dodgy businessmen.
Director Bill Condon is a long-time collaborator of McKellen’s. The filmmaker won an adapted screenplay Oscar for 1998’s Gods and Monsters, a biopic starring the respected thespian about Frankenstein auteur James Whale’s final days. Their most recent collaboration Mr. Holmes, complete with an elderly version of the famous detective struggling with dementia, was one of the few original takes on the character since Sherlock’s recent renaissance across film and TV.
Condon’s best efforts are empathetic character studies about men reflecting back as they face the end of their life stories. The Good Liar is certainly a different beast than those sombre affairs. It’s refreshing to see McKellen inhabit a character so utterly lacking in any moral fibre. While he’s played the ethically grey villain Magneto in recent years, it’s been some time since he’s taken on a role of someone so inarguably awful. He relishes it here, offering up one of his more entertainingly duplicitous creations.
Mirren doesn’t quite make the same impact. Hampered by playing the reserved and uncorrupted victim, only in the final scenes is she allowed to sink her teeth after the gloves come off. Up to that point we ache for a vintage Mirren as she plays a character made play dumb to the point of hair-pulling frustration. Nonetheless it’s still something seeing her share the screen with what must be the last of the genuine contemporaries she’s never worked with in this context.
The bit players do their part. Russel Tovey clocks in, then out, as the McLeish’s suspicious step grandson Stephen. Downtown Abbey alum Jim Carter puts in a reliable shift as Roy’s “investment adviser” and partner in crime. They can’t really do much with a script that was probably a late-period Midsummer Murders episode not too long ago. White collar crime discussions feel painfully rudimentary as Condon holds both hands of the audience to get his point across. Elsewhere we become much less forgiving of an attempted Russian accent that is, in fact, meant to be genuine and not part of a con as we’d hoped.
The Good Liar’s plot doesn’t effortlessly twist and turn so much as it maneuvers laboriously like an articulated lorry around a tight corner. There’s the sometimes entertaining, central dynamic between our leads, asides involving Berlin, World War II and forged identities but it never really coalesces into a satisfying mystery. Condon forgets to adequately lay the groundwork for reveals that only surprise because they are so left-of-field they must have come from outside the stadium. A final disclosure manages to be somehow both aggressively telegraphed and infuriatingly preposterous.
Condon certainly has proven his talent in the past. But The Good Liar won’t be seen as evidence of this in years to come. It’s the kind of polished clunky feature that ITV might commission to show in the limbo between Christmas Day and New Year’s and it’s that fate of which the film is mostly likely designed. Two greats evidently don’t always make a thing great. A disappointment to be sure.