I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Helen Mirren — steely, badass, worldly wise Helen Mirren — as a meek, naive widow simply ripe for the picking by Ian McKellen’s silver-fox dating-app con artist? That… seems unlikely. Helen Mirren, you say?
“Sometimes casting alone gives a movie’s game away right from the get-go, doesn’t it?” is the inevitable default position anyone with even a modicum of movie knowledge takes into The Good Liar. We cannot even be faulted for this; the movie has to be counting on it, in fact. For part of how this movie is being marketed is on the strength of its undeniably terrific cast, on our previous awareness of the sheer joy that absolutely does come from watching two masters of their craft at work. What’s more, Liar is the first time Mirren (Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw, Winchester) and McKellen (Beauty and the Beast, Mr. Holmes) have appeared onscreen together (they’ve costarred on stage before), and that only works as a selling point if you know what sort of actorly reputations they bring with them, and why it might be exciting to watch them square off.
Given all that, the notion of Helen Mirren letting herself get snookered by anyone is just not imaginable, no matter what Liar’s setup might have us believe. McKellen’s Roy Courtnay meets Mirren’s Betty McLeish for dinner after they connect online, on a dating site for older singles. He’s comes across as charmingly doddering, but we know he’s a shark out to take her money. She seems sweet and oblivious to the threat he presents… but she’s gotta have an angle of her own, right? Why else would director Bill Condon (The Fifth Estate, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2) have cast the likes of Mirren?
If it’s almost impossible to take Liar’s setup at face value, that means we spend a good deal of the runtime — as Roy and Betty spend more and more time together and, from her perspective, they deepen their relationship, and from his, he sinks his claws in — trying to second guess the movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; films about con artists usually are also conning the audience, and there are certainly the typical movie-movie pleasures to be had in Liar in trying to stay one step ahead of film and congratulating yourself when you figure that you’re outsmarting it. But…
So this is the point at which I say, “Hey, if you think you know what’s going on, just you wait…!” Yet that’s not a positive thing here, not a fun thing but a ridiculous thing that keeps getting increasingly absurd. Where this eventually limp thriller fancies itself so being smart and sharp and twisty — and probably feminist, even — made me groan out loud. The actual story, once we finally get to it, is deeply problematic on multiple levels. One of those levels has Liar shamefully indulging in a hoary trope about women’s motivations, a dated, overplayed idea about what might drive Betty to do the things she is doing. It is very much a narrowly reductive male take — the movie is based on the novel by Nicholas Searle, with a screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher (The Duchess, Casanova) — one that does not appreciate how women react to and engage with the world. It undermines everything that comes before it, reduces the whole endeavor to the ludicrous. (Another small thing: Mirren might just barely be old enough to have the backstory the movie posits for her, but McKellan absolutely is not for his.)
Here’s a spoiler-free idea of the sort of opportunity for a genuinely feminist twist the story misses: Betty introduces Roy to her grandson, Steven (the always endearing Russell Tovey: Mindhorn, Pride), her only family, though he is scowling and skeptical of his gran’s new boyfriend. Roy tries to placate Steven, whose disapproval he takes to be jealousy at Roy’s taking up so much of her time, with an explanation about why Steven should tolerate Roy: because at least he offers Betty romantic opportunities that Steven cannot. Now, as soon as I presumed that Betty is also up to some scheme of her own, I also started wonder whether Steven might not actually be her grandson but was perhaps her partner in whatever crime — or “crime” — she might be up to. And so when Roy delivered his little speech, I thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if Steven was in fact Betty’s boyfriend!” Sure, Tovey is 36 years younger than Mirren, but we see the reverse — men romantically paired with women decades younger than them — onscreen all the time. And that would have been a truly feminist smackdown of everything that Roy stands for… including the things that we don’t yet know about him at that point.
Oh, I know: We critics are not supposed to fault a movie for what it is not, and should focus only on what it is. So here is what it is: The Good Liar is a crime against Helen Mirren, for keeping her on too tight a leash for too long, for teasing us with what sort of unleashing she will get to have, for making her too small and too constrained a person. She deserves better than this, and so do we.