Ian McKellen has previous form with Bill Condon. In publicity interviews for his latest film, an adaptation of a novel by Nicholas Searle, he has repeatedly declared that he feels safe in his hands. And well he might, having first been directed by Condon in the well received 1998 movie Gods and Monsters and, subsequently, in Mr. Holmes and Beauty and the Beast.
Surprisingly, however, he has no screen form with Helen Mirren, though their distinguished, award-strewn stage and movie careers have danced rings around each other since the 1970s.
The prospect of watching these two fine actors working in tandem is an irresistible draw to a film, which, often in unflinching close-up, offers an engrossing masterclass in the art of becoming someone else.
The opening titles match up Brian Courtenay (McKellen) and Betty McLeish (Mirren), two sprightly, media-savvy pensioners separately tapping away at their laptops, ticking the applicable boxes on the Distinguished Dating website. They appear to be experienced hands at this game, he more so than her.
She comes in search of friendship with a trusty male confidant, who might go some way towards filling the gap left by her recently departed and much loved husband. He comes in search of something entirely different.
Why do not alarm bells distantly ring when, on their first date, Courtenay admits that his first name is not Brian but Roy? She does not pause to ask why he has felt the need to swop one mundane name for another. But she should. She really should.
The fact that such a basic query goes by default early on in the relationship is a signpost to other discrepancies that will be brushed over in the course of Roy’s cynical strategy. He is a past master at hiding in full sight and what starts out as a twinkly caper will take a series of darker and ever more contorted turns, morphing into a weirdly coincidental, if slightly mismatched historical drama.
In many aspects, McKellen is right to trust the instincts of his director. The Good Liar is beautifully and sensitively shot. Every frame is burnished with a sheeny finish, whose colour palette imperceptibly tints to suit the mood and period of the swirling back stories.
Mirren and McKellen devour the screen, each player skilfully turning up the intensity of focus on their respective characters. Mirren excels at her trademark knack of blending insouciant distance with total immersion. She is adept at small but significant gestures, self-consciously snatching off her glasses at first sight of her dapper dinner companion .
A retired university lecturer with an astonishingly incurious mind, Betty rushes trustingly into domestic harmony with McKellan’s wheedling con merchant. Cultured and slightly exotic, she registers as vaguely out of place in beige, thickly carpeted Home Counties affluence, a milieu to which Courtenay adapts like a duck to water.
During a hastily planned tour of European cities, a single beat sounds the onset of the crucial plot twist. Gazing up at the stern frontage of an abandoned family home, Mirren’s face hardens and thickens, her jawline tenses as echoes from a troubled past begin to sound.
In contrast to Mirren’s cool stillness, McKellen is all bonhomie and crackling energy, abruptly throwing the switch from loveable, bumbling old codger into inveterate, ruthless, highly practised charlatan. And just when it appears that the game is up, he produces a last incarnation that would crack the heart of a stone.
Two thirds of the way through, the screen action starts to feel a touch overwrought as the long concealed ties which will forever bind Roy and Betty stretch credibility. However, the film’s visual finesse, its appeal as an engrossing thriller and the exceptional central performances, coupled with strong support by Jim Carter as Roy’s suave sidekick Vincent and Russell Tovey as Betty’s over-zealous ‘grandson’ Steven, compensate for a plot in which romance and history do not quite rhyme.
On general release from 7 November 2019.