Bill Condon, “The Good Liar” (2019)
Getting two giants of British stage and film proved to be the least of director Bill Condon’s problems; the biggest turned out to be finding a script that was worthy of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren’s talents. Although the two actors put in very good performances, “The Good Liar” turns out to be a pedestrian work. Serial grifter Roy Courtnay (McKellen) manipulates people into handing over their finances through various deceptive schemes, usually by employing false identities. One ruse is to go on dating websites to find and scam vulnerable widows: his latest victim is one Betty McLeish (Mirren), a sweet old lady who recently lost her husband Adrian and has inherited a cool three million pounds. Thereupon the two embark on the usual round of meeting for lunch or dinner at smart restaurants, going to the cinema to see third-rate Hollywood war films or walking in the park hand in hand. When not occupied with McLeish – and to his surprise, the widow insists that he stay in her house to recuperate from a gammy knee – Courtnay teams with fellow con-man Vincent (Jim Carter) to fleece another victim, Bryn (Mark Lewis Jones), of his money in an elaborate fake offshore financial scam. When Bryn realises he has been robbed, he secretly follows Courtnay but Courtnay tricks him into following him (Courtnay) into Charing Cross tube station where the experienced grifter brutally attacks his victim and sends him into the path of an oncoming train.
From then on, Betty McLeish and Roy Courtnay become ever closer to the extent of agreeing to combine their bank accounts with Vincent’s help, to the chagrin of Betty’s grandson Steven (Russell Tovey). Betty insists on taking Roy to visit Berlin where Steven is doing research on World War II history. There, Roy is unexpectedly confronted with his past as a soldier working with a German-English translator Hans Taub, seeking a Nazi war criminal …
At this point the film becomes less credible, as not only Roy but other people he thought he knew turn out to have false identities; and on learning those people’s true identities, he is forced to accept the consequences of past heinous actions which impact on his life and transform it forever. He is literally left a broken man. We do not learn however if he learns a lesson from his past crimes, and this is one aspect of the film that detracts from it overall. We also do not learn whether Betty regrets what she believes she has had to do – or even whether she had any legal authority to do what she does – to avenge the suffering that was done to her parents and siblings more than 60 years ago (at the time the film is set) in a distant country and period. Is she afraid that what was done to her then might happen to her grandchildren? Does she even consider that what she has done in the film might come back to bite her, just as what Roy did in the past came back to bite him? Again, the film is silent on this question, and this silence diminishes the film further: there is no suggestion that Betty’s vengeance, even in the context of a society that no longer cares about the suffering of victims of past wars (unless they are favoured victims of a particular historical narrative), might not be the moral thing to do.
Details of the plot, such as the ages of the protagonist and antagonist – if they were teenagers during World War II, then they’d have to be well over 80 years of age when they meet in the film’s present – and the way in which the revenge plot is resolved, with two characters from earlier in the film unexpectedly turning up at the climax, are simply not plausible. The punishment meted out to Roy is excessive, even for someone (spoiler alert) as psychopathic as he turns out to be.
The film could have delivered a profound message on identity and reinvention of oneself, to escape a troubled past (which ends up intruding on one’s present in unexpected and unpleasant ways), and on the nature of revenge, and how it might or might not resolve suffering, but the opportunity was frittered on a simple and superficial story. As former Shakespearean actors, McKellen and Mirren are far better than this and deserve better scripts.