Ambiguous titles bear attending to. Does “The Good Liar” refer to someone who’s good at lying? A good person who lies? Or maybe both? The movie does have two leads, after all.
We’re in London, in 2009. The date is notable because certain . . . events . . . from the years during and just after World War II will matter, and matter a great deal, in this adaptation of Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel. So while those years are now distant in time, they’re not so distant that Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) and Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) weren’t around then.
A very clever opening sequence shows Roy and Betty meeting online, via a dating service. The sequence reveals something that may be even more important: Roy and the truth aren’t exactly on a first-name basis. When he clicks “No” next to the question “Smoker?” we see the cigarette held in his fingers.
Betty is recently widowed. Roy represents himself as being recently widowed, too. A relationship ensues. It’s clear to us, if not to Betty, that finance rather than romance is Roy’s real interest. What Betty’s real interest is — well, that would be romance, of course. But she and Roy seem to lack chemistry. So there are several possible reasons for her taking up with him. She’s that needy. She has some ulterior motive, as we are led to believe Roy does. Or maybe we’re mistaken, and there is chemistry — but with two such skilled actors it’s hard to imagine that an ostensible absence of chemistry doesn’t signify something.
“The Good Liar” reunites McKellen with Bill Condon, who directed him so memorably in “Gods and Monsters” (1998) and later “Mr. Holmes” (2015). Jim Carter, playing Roy’s friend and accomplice — or is he more accomplice than friend? — is a reassuring presence, if not reassuring in the upright way that his Mr. Carson is on “Downton Abbey.” Russell Tovey plays Mirren’s grandson. His main function is to scowl and look skeptical. He does this well, if not memorably.
That’s all right, since being memorable isn’t his job; it’s McKellen’s and Mirren’s. Their back-and-forth provides a satisfaction akin to watching two masters volley at Wimbledon. Unfortunately, the ball these masters are playing with manages the perplexing trick of being worn and waterlogged while also far too bouncy: stodginess and over-plotting is not a good combination.
About three-fifths of the way in, there is A Big Twist. Oddly, this Big Twist leaves Betty undeterred. Perhaps that’s because Helen Mirren characters are about as undeterrable as those of any actor this side of Clint Eastwood. (Mirren and Clint: Now there is a movie face-off waiting to happen.) Or maybe it’s because there’s A Bigger Twist to come. Either way, that bounciness means that McKellen and Mirren are reduced to relying on lobs, drop shots, and backspin, lots and lots of backspin. If they were playing golf instead of tennis, we’d say that they’re having to deal with bad lies.
THE GOOD LIAR
Directed by Bill Condon. Written by Jeffrey Hatcher; based on the novel by Nicholas Searle. Starring Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Jim Carter, Russell Tovey. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 110 minutes. R (some strong violence, language, brief nudity)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.