This is a movie that lives up to its packaging: the superb talents of Dame Helen Mirren and Sir Ian McKellen, a popular novel with a twisty plot and a top-notch director, Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters; Beauty and the Beast). The title tells all: The tale concerns a con man, Roy (McKellen), and a widow, Betty (Mirren), who has a small fortune and a suspicious grandson (Russell Tovey of HBO’s “Looking”).
The screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher (The Duchess) does a fine job of boiling down Nicholas Searle’s source material — which is layered with flashbacks to Roy’s life in nearly every decade since World War II — into a taut tale of deception and gradually uncovered secrets. Any modestly sophisticated viewer is going to anticipate a lot of the twists before they arrive, but that doesn’t make them less satisfying.
The movie’s chief appeal is watching the lead actors playing their variously deceitful roles in countless scenes together. McKellen, who was so sympathetic in Condon’s last intimate project, Mr. Holmes, gives himself over to Roy’s twisted pleasures. The word “dastardly” comes to mind since Roy is in many ways a throwback to nasty conmen of stories past. Mirren, who’s been slumming lately in movies like Hobbs & Shaw, Anna and Winchester, finally gets to play a dignified, intelligent British woman who doesn’t happen to be royalty. She’s a joy to watch at work.
A bonus for “Downton Abbey” fans is the appearance of Jim Carter as Roy’s sidekick, a crook for whom Mr. Carson would surely have a few choice words.
The long con storyline is a cinematic tradition in which too often the filmmakers feel it necessary to pull the rug out from under their viewers as if to assert their superiority. For The Good Liar, on the other hand, Condon conspires with his viewers rather than against them. The film is less about fooling the audience than it is about wish fulfillment and belief in a world where good and evil are clearly delineated and justice is possible, even if long delayed.