Skip to main content

It’s like being smothered in beige.

The Good Liar
(2019)

(SPOILERS) I probably ought to have twigged, based on the specific setting of The Good Liar that World War II would be involved – ten years ago, rather than the present day, so making the involvement of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren just about believable – but I really wish it hadn’t been. Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, adapting Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel, offers a nifty little conning-the-conman tale that would work much, much better without the ungainly backstory and motivation that impose themselves about halfway through and then get paid off with equal lack of finesse.

It’s evident very early on that Mirren’s Betty McLeish is pulling a number on McKellen’s Roy Courtnay, whom we have already been shown scamming a couple of businessmen. He is simultaneously attempting to fleece lonely widow Betty of her savings, meeting up through a lonely-hearts website and inveigling himself upon her such that she invites him to move in: next stop, a joint account, despite the protestations of her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey). So far, so undemandingly agreeable, in a sub-Mamet, sub-House of Games way. McKellen and Mirren are consummately watchable, and if there’s nothing especially choice about the plot dynamics, Hatcher grants McKellen the occasional grandiloquent turn of phrase. Director Bill Condon does a good, steady job, having previously teamed with McKellen and Hatcher to pleasing, autumnal effect in Mr Holmes, and makes it clear that Roy is a ruthless bastard beneath the charm, most transparently during a subway confrontation with a con victim, duly stabbed and pushed in front of an oncoming train.

But then the action moves to Berlin, and Roy’s dodgy past demands attention out of nowhere as Steven confronts him. Roy admits he was the German translator for the real Roy Courtnay, assuming his identity in 1948 after he was killed. Initially, this twist serves to wrongfoot the viewer – let’s face it, every viewer – who has concluded Betty is playing her own game, because how can exposing him serve her end game? And it seems, ultimately, that it doesn’t, since Steven later apologises for what is presumably this outburst… Which means the episode makes no sense, that Steven (not her actual grandson, but the boyfriend of her grandson), having planned everything out with Betty, should nearly fumble it so spectacularly (one might also ask why Betty even needs to drag Roy to Berlin, and as for her visit, wouldn’t it have made more sense to go searching for her locket before setting the wheels of her plan in motion?)

It’s evident structurally why this excursion is there, as suddenly unspooling Betty’s story in a rush of exposition at the end, hitherto unannounced, wouldn’t fly. But truth be told, it doesn’t fly this way either, and comes across as no less awkward and unprompted. Shoehorned in as it is, Betty/Lili having been raped by Roy/Hans as a teenager, with consequent events triggered by Roy leading to the loss of her entire family, somehow serves to undermine her character rather than bolster it. Betty becomes just another revenge-seeking victim, having nursed her grievances for sixty years (despite saying she forgives him). How much more effective if she and Roy were simply mirrors of each other? She another con artist, but better and craftier. You could easily take out the backstory and end up with a more satisfying, less cumbersome tale.

Perhaps Searle didn’t think that was weighty enough. Perhaps, on the page, the historic dynamic between them plays out better. Condon and Hatcher would have been wise to hone the relationship down to bare essentials, though. As it is, The Good Liar is handsomely made and impeccably performed, but ends up unnecessarily over-contrived.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979) Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.