Doesn’t it seem just wrong that Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren have never appeared in a movie together before? Wouldn’t you want to watch an entire film series featuring the two of them exchanging knowing looks, tart retorts and complicated Cheshire-cat smiles? (I would; somebody please make this happen.) “The Good Liar,” thank goodness, rights that terrible wrong — and if the movie isn’t quite what it should be, it doesn’t matter much. Sir Ian and Dame Helen are selling this thing for all they’re worth, and all we can do is sit back, munch our popcorn and appreciate their mastery.
Based, somewhat loosely, on Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel and directed by Bill Condon (who’s worked well with McKellen before, in “Gods and Monsters” and “Mr. Holmes”), “The Good Liar” introduces us to two people who are, in the opening scene, not who they say they are. Roy (McKellen) and Betty (Mirren) are shown, over the old-school opening credits, filling out online dating profiles for London seniors; they use fake names, lie about their smoking and drinking, and eventually meet for a nervous bistro dinner. Finding a spark, they confess to the duplicity and embark on a relationship. But in the movie’s very early scenes, we learn something that Betty doesn’t know: Roy is a con man, and this well-off, smiling widow is his mark.
This gives McKellen some good material; his Roy is putting on a show, and it’s a delight to watch him playing the jolly codger, pretending to be more frail than he is. (Roy deserves an Oscar for his elaborate don’t-worry-about-me-I-won’t-fall performance as he lurches up a flight of stairs.) Mirren’s character is quieter, though she lets us see the wheels turning as we start to wonder exactly what Betty knows and doesn’t know.
The film’s final third is a real mess, with flashbacks and Hitchcockian dark corridors and a lot of elaborate plot that makes no sense once you think about it — but it’s both absurd and utterly satisfying, and when it’s over you just want to hang out with McKellen and Mirren some more. What is acting, after all, but lying very, very well? As a movie, “The Good Liar” is just so-so, but as a master class in performance and star quality, it’s a pleasure.
★★★ “The Good Liar,” with Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter. Directed by Bill Condon, from a screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel by Nicholas Searle. 110 minutes. Rated R for some strong violence, and for language and brief nudity. Opens Nov. 15 at multiple theaters.