Director Bill Condon knows how to put a thriller on the screen, even one as overcomplicated, but compelling, like “The Good Liar.” This is, after all, the Bill Condon who gave us “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn” 1 and 2.

We’re off. The players in this “pas de deus,” Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) and Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) meet. They find one another through a British online-dating service and, to save time, they meet, have dinner and take in a movie (“Inglorious Basterds”) together.

It all looks like a British “When Harry Met Sally” love story. We know better. A lot better. Because we’ve seen all the TV ads that give away too much.

We all learn going in that Roy is what the Brits used to call a “bounder.” He’s a master con artist who is out to fleece Betty, a widow and Oxford professor, of her sizable savings of several million pounds. Apparently, Oxford pays well.

So, a few dates later, Roy fakes a “war wound” bad knee, and sweet, considerate Betty invites him to stay in a guest room at her comfy home. This is one of several groan-worthy scenes. Get used to it. They don’t do much damage.

After settling in, Roy trots out to meet his con partner Vincent (Jim Carter, Mr. Carson of “Downton Abbey”) at a strip club, where they do business with a foursome they’re also conning.


This will not turn out well for the newcomers.

Don’t try to remember any of this, because there are way too many “things” to deal with, and even a sniff of one will make it all tumble down into a pile of impenetrable confusion.

The script is taken from the novel by Nicholas Searle, a former British intelligence officer, who wrote it while in writing school and then, overnight, it became a huge bestseller with critics comparing it to John Le Carre’s work. All of this will explain the darts and dodges, alleys and apartments, homes and an essential painting of flowers. I can’t tell you what kind of flowers; it’s classified.

Because the story flows back and forth through 70 years, and lots of different characters enter, you may want to make notes on your phone.

To further complicate things, Betty has a grandson who lives with her — a skeptical young man, a very cool onlooker (Russell Tovey) whom we feel will turn over Roy’s rock and blow up his plan. We will be wrong.

The story moves from London to Paris and Berlin, and each city has a story and marvelous characters. Pay close attention to each, and don’t get lost. By the middle of the story, when you think you’ve got it all figured out, you’re probably wrong.


But of course, no movie can go wrong when it has the great Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren at the center.

Mirren is, of course, captivating as usual.

McKellen eschews all the oleaginous cover of your everyday swindler, and masks his moves in glorious toothsome ways. Your grandmother might have had him in for tourtiere.

None of this really matters. It’s all worth the head-scratching and occasional missteps to sit in the presence of these two grandmasters in what amounts to a master class in cinema acting. Enjoy.

J.P.  Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.

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