“The Good Liar” — starring Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen — may be a major studio picture, released by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema. But, in form, it is a slow simmering alchemy of Hitchcockian suspense, Sophoclean tragedy and the dramatic minimalism of a two-person play.
“I’ve gotten a chance to make bigger movies in my life, where you have armies of people on the set,” director Bill Condon told Variety at Wednesday night’s premiere at 787 at Seventh in New York City. “And for me, when you’re in the middle of those, you dream about having a clever script and a few great actors. This movie, specifically, is really a two-hander between these two legends.”
The story of lifelong conman Roy Courtnay who’s set his mark on Betty McLeish, a widow worth millions, “The Good Liar” pairs McKellen and Mirren in a delicate dance of deception, as Roy lures Betty into a relationship built entirely on lies and Betty, too, spins a terrifying web of deception around her predator.
“There’s nothing like watching two actors in a room have at each other,” screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher said. “It’s a play, really, and it turns out the space these two characters inhabit is a stage.”
A movie about lying and deception is inevitability a film about performance, and that impulse to mine the theatrical talents of McKellen and Mirren in creating an intimate and chillingly suspenseful drama was a creative strategy of Condon’s.
“The characters are great actors, and you need great actors to play great actors. So, the act of performing is a central part of the story,” he explained. “All of the amazing Shakespeare villains that Ian has played informs what he does here. He’s just so conversant in the whole range of human nature, of human emotion, that he can fill in the blanks.”
That Shakespearean model of abundantly filled stages, lavishly orchestrated with an entangled mess of characters, holds as much sway in the theater as it does on screen. But to divest ourselves of that scale in favor of the minimalist potential of two actors in a room, of drama reduced to its most intimate and destructive form, is what makes “The Good Liar” worth seeing.
“Part of forming relationships is that first blush of putting on your best face, where everyone’s an actor,” Condon said. “On the first date, we’re all good liars, a little bit. But the question becomes, as the onion gets peeled away and more is revealed, can you stay in there and continue to expose yourself? In that intimacy between two people is great tension and suspense.”
McKellen echoed that notion. “It is a story a bit about acting,” he said. “I think that’s what human beings do, isn’t it?”
“Animals, you may have noticed, don’t pretend to be anything other than a giraffe, a dog or an elephant,” he continued. “But we’re all sorts of human beings; we dress up on occasion. We show different aspects of ourselves, too, depending on what company we’re in. And these characters are exaggerations of that. And the audience is to work out if they’re both liars, performers in that sense, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say they both are.”
Adds Mirren, walking the red carpet with partner-in-crime McKellen “In that sense it’s also very filmy. I see it as Hitchcockian in the sense of telling and misleading the audience, of taking them up the garden path, so to speak. And you can only do that with a very masterful filmmaking.”
“The Good Liar” is in theaters on Nov. 15.