Aging performers can be sad to watch. Right when they should be doing the best work of their careers, they’re playing wise codgers and 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, the senior citizen’s avidity for just one more piece of pie. On the typewritten titles McKellen (Ian) and Mirren (Helen) get last-name credits before their first names bleed up through the paper. Do they really need first names at this stage?
It’s 2009, and a couple is busily typing away at a computer dating site for people in their sunset years. They tell little white lies as they correspond. He, Roy, claims not to smoke, as he puffs on a cig; she, Betty, denies drinking as she takes a nice swig from a glass of white wine. They meet. He’s a kindly, tweedy, wrinkly 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.”
Meek Betty has a grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey) who watches Roy like a hawk—he’s worrisomely muscled and his ears stick out as if he’s always listening in. After the first date, Roy departs for a titty bar’s private lounge, there 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, far out in the suburbs. She’s in frail health, poor dear; stroke prone, she must be kept in beige surroundings lest colors over-excite her. As they grow closer, Betty suggests a trip to Berlin. The thrilling city has some unhappy history. In long flashbacks that don’t knock this film off its axle, we learn more about Roy and that mysterious scar on his neck he’d rather not talk about.
If you don’t suspect The Good Liar’s title ought to be plural, you’re far younger and 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, groaning bravely about his gammy leg or flicking a police CCTV camera away with the point of his umbrella so it won’t record his next crime. He’s a pleasure even in slighter moments of disgust, scowling at a squad of power-walking seniors huffing up the street in front of Betty’s house. And 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, and with a great deal less artifice; the keenness of eye and firmness of mouth projects enough force to hold this film’s stories together. And there’s a shrewd 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.