When it comes to film genres that always seem to have an appetite inducing effect on general audiences, the book adaptation crime thriller is right up there at the top of the tree. We love a bit of drama, we love a crime or two and we certainly love a twist, and with a mountain of source material larger than Everest to choose from, it seems to be a corner of cinema that is never without a new release or two. What would the latest offering have to say for itself?
Based on a 2016 novel by Nicholas Searle, The Good Liar tells the story of Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), a wealthy widower who begins a relationship with the charming and agreeable Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) after the two make a connection on an online dating site. In no time at all Roy finds himself invited to live with Betty, and the narrative very quickly reveals that all is not as it seems, with both Betty and Roy not necessarily laying their intentions bare, keeping their cards close to their chests in a game of cat and mouse.
It’s fair to say that The Good Liar starts off on solid footing, an intriguing premise with a couple of really seasoned performers to tell the story, but unfortunately the narrative descends into a barrage of twists and turns that are at the same time utterly predictable and utterly preposterous. Rather than opting for a scaled down but tense kind of cat and mouse game between protagonists, the source material really swings for the fences, to very little success in my opinion. A story that crosses generations and country borders finishes in a place so ridiculous that you have to laugh, because any other kind of reaction is wholly undeserved.
I’m willing to give author Nicholas Searle the benefit of the doubt and say that over the course of a 350 page novel, there is a little more room for development and nuance compared to a sub two hour movie, but if the book finishes in the same place as the film, it’s still an incredibly corny and groan worthy series of twists that don’t feel natural or earned at any point.
There is something about the film that also feels really tonally strange, never really knowing what air to stick with. What feels like a higher then average quality episode of Midsomer Murders one moment will suddenly take a turn with a handful of dropped C-bombs and graphic injury gore, it’s kind of all over the place in that sense. Ultimately, the overriding feeling from watching The Good Liar is that whilst you aren’t necessarily bored along the way, you certainly come out at the end thinking nothing other than ‘well, that was silly, wasn’t it?’.
No film that boasts Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen as joint leads can ever be accused of featuring bad performances, and the national treasure pairing are definitely enjoyable in their respective roles regardless of the overall quality of the picture. Whilst neither Betty nor Roy feel completely authentic in any of their various guises throughout the narrative, it’s fair to say that Mirren and McKellen do the best they can with the material provided.
Helen Mirren is the kind of mature, seasoned actress that can still easily carry the weight of a big project, and there’s no doubting that she is fun to watch here, it’s just a shame that the actual content of the plot isn’t the best. It might be a redundant comment to make, but the crime thriller strength of story was often far more impressive in Mirren’s long running Prime Suspect series.
As Roy, Ian McKellen probably plays the most against ‘type’ that I’ve seen him, if you can even accuse him of having a ‘type’. Suspicious, crafty and villainous pretty much from the start, there is a lot of fun bad guy stuff for the actor to get his teeth into, the problem being that it feels a lot more fun for him than for the audience. It’s enjoyable to see Mirren and McKellen playing opposite one another in this fashion, but it must be said that as the plot starts to take it’s preposterous turns on turns on turns in the final third, the material starts to feel very much beneath the talents of the two leads.
Overall, The Good Liar is a bit of a weird one really. I want to say that it’s a crime thriller for the older crowd, but the occasional bursts of extreme bad language and violent gore put it in a limbo of perhaps being a little too much for your grandma but nowhere near thrilling or edgy enough for more ‘seasoned’ fans of the genre. Ultimately a film and story like this relies on the strength and intrigue of its twists and revelations, and the truths unearthed in this are among some of the most eye rolling I’ve experienced this year.