When it comes to writing a screenplay, especially a thriller, there’s a tendency for writers to stick to the genre’s propensity for twists and turns. While it is to be expected that there will be a couple of surprise plot changes and reversals, screenwriters run the risk of becoming convoluted in the process. Of course there are going to be a few little twists along the way, but the secret is to find a balance using coherent storytelling and fresh deviations in order to keep it from becoming rote.
In the case of The Good Liar starring Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, the idea of a conman preying on a wealthy widower seems quite obvious. However, the fresh change in this instance is the age of the co-leads, which also has some interesting implications when it comes to romance and companionship. Cleverly playing off McKellen’s character who like a chameleon changes colour according to his environment, there’s a great tension around the on-going deception.
Writer-director Bill Condon has worked with McKellen on a number of films before and there must be some trust between the actor and director having worked together on Gods and Monsters and Mr Holmes. McKellen is really the star of The Good Liar, while Helen Mirren’s role escalates in stature as the story intensifies. It’s mostly entertaining for the star power and level of performance at play, remaining quite compelling based on the nature of the story, which ultimately becomes a cat-and-mouse thriller with a touch of class.
Condon hints at various outcomes, which keep you guessing the whole way, making the eventual outcome not all that far-fetched based on the context. Using some of the actor’s previous performances as a way to bait the audience, he positions the story, seesawing the power dynamics. Much like a heavyweight boxing match, these Hollywood legends dish it out and while it is ultimately McKellen’s film, Mirren does manage to land some telling blows.
*Spoiler alert* While The Good Liar gets away with much of its leaps owing to the audience’s appreciation of the co-stars, it could have used more finesse in the way that it captures flashbacks. While the German connection isn’t all that distant for McKellen who starred in Apt Pupil, it does seem like a case of too much smoke and mirrors. The conman already has a number of hidden identities, making this rabbit hole journey all the way back to Europe seem quite ludicrous. Possibly influenced by John Demanjuk, which led to The Devil Next Door documentary miniseries about Ivan the Terrible, there appears to be a renewed interest in capturing Nazis and war criminals, who have had it good for too long.
While the mature cast is certainly refreshing, the film adapted from a novel by Nicolas Searle almost doesn’t seem to believe itself. While the flashback scenes are serviceable, they could have been handled more carefully, suddenly appearing like a tangent to the London reality, which has become the norm. Trying to shift scenes without titles or cues is disorientating. Seemingly changing world’s so late in the film does come across as quite jarring. While it may be faithful to the novel, the dramatic shift almost derails the film. The European holiday includes Berlin as a destination, which was a major tip-off in spite of its architecture and historical interest as a developing city. The transition is just a bit too jagged.
The temptation to continually twist the story and reinvent the character’s background can lead to the point of alienation. While these identity twists can make a film in the case of The Usual Suspects, they have to be handled deftly and with limits. While it was predictable that Mirren wouldn’t simply be a demure widow without a clue the entire duration of The Good Liar, it sometimes seems like filmmakers aren’t taking the time to prepare the twist, simply pulling the wool over their audience’s eyes much like Robert Downey Jr’s reveal in the new Sherlock Holmes.
To their credit, while you may think you know what is on the horizon, they managed to elude possible interpretations. Perhaps it’s these twists within twists that over-complicate matters, distancing us from the characters, casting suspicion on the integrity of the storytelling and thus bottoming out some of the hard work done in laying foundations. As it stands, The Good Liar is an entertaining yarn of a thriller but as steady-handed as the director and cast are on paper, it does seem to get away from them a bit in the game-changing third act.