Aging performers can be sad to watch. Right when they should be doing their best work, they’re lending their years of integrity to luxury-car commercial voiceovers.
Happily, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar rejoices in old age’s boundless capacity for treachery. On the typewritten titles McKellen (Ian) and Mirren (Helen) get last-name credits before their first names bleed through the paper. Do they need first names at this stage?
It’s 2009, and a couple is typing away at a computer dating site for people in their sunset years. They tell white lies as they correspond. They meet. He’s a kindly old gentleman with a trustworthy Walt Disney mustache. He practically signals his virtue with semaphore flags: “What I deplore most in life is dishonesty.” He has a son with whom he’s estranged: “I don’t approve of his lifestyle…he designs kitchens.”
Betty has a grandson, Steven (Russel Tovey) who watches Roy like a hawk. After the first date, Roy departs for a titty bar, to meet an equally dodgy circle of “financiers,” including his main partner in grift (the great Jim Carter). All get ready to launder some Russian money.
Roy could use a hideout. Over the objections of Steven, Betty moves the old man into her guest room. She’s in frail health; stroke prone. She suggests a trip to Berlin. The city has unhappy history. In long flashbacks we learn about Roy and that mysterious scar on his neck he doesn’t talk about.
If you don’t suspect The Good Liar‘s title should be plural, you’re more innocent than the cast. We can predict Roy-the-enterprising-weasel will become a cornered rat. Still, McKellen shows he’s a virtuoso of villainy, glowing in false benevolence. He’s a pleasure even in slighter moments of disgust, scowling at a squad of power-walking seniors. His last cowed glare at the audience is a payback scene worthy of a Lon Chaney movie.
At this point, Mirren has kept her personal magic as long as Marlene Dietrich; her keenness of eye and firmness of mouth project enough force to hold this film’s stories together. And there’s a final moment where Betty, alarmed by the noises of three little girls in her yard, has second thoughts. The girls are there to keep a happy ending from being too happy. A skyscape is all the more beautiful for having a cloud in it.
‘The Good Liar’ is now playing in