Cast: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Jim Carter, Russell Tovey, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Mark Lewis Jones
Director: Bill Condon
Running Time: 109
Synopsis: Consummate con man Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) has set his sights on his latest mark: the recently widowed Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), worth millions. And Roy means to take it all.
From their very first meeting, Roy begins plying Betty with his tried and true manipulations, and Betty, who seems quite taken with him, is soon going along for the ride. But this time, what should have been a simple swindle escalates into a cat-and-mouse game with the ultimate stakes"revealing more insidious deceptions that will take them both through a minefield of danger, intrigue and betrayal.
Legendary actors Helen Mirren (Oscar winner, "The Queen") and Ian McKellen (two-time Oscar nominee, "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" and "Gods and Monsters") star together on screen for the first time, in this smart and suspenseful thriller from New Line Cinema about the secrets people keep and the lies they live.
The Good Liar
Release Date: December 5th, 2019
"The Good Liar" is an intriguing look at the dark side of human nature but often with a glimmer of macabre humor," says director and producer Bill Condon of this gripping tale where so little is what it seems to be. "It's a thriller with a Hitchcockian feel, weaving in elements of mystery, crime and a human drama. And at its heart are two beautifully complex characters played by two of the greatest actors of all time, at the top of their form, who can keep you guessing like a classic whodunnit till the very end. It's all wickedly fun."
Beyond that, and because he knows that people likely expect to have the rug pulled out from under them in a story like this, Condon adds, "What excites me most is how audiences will be able to piece together this intricate puzzle with all its twists and turns. It's not just the twists themselves that might surprise you but the motives and the sheer depth of where they come from and why."
Helen Mirren stars as Betty, who accepts that first tentative meeting between her character and Ian McKellen's dapper Roy. "You want characters that have substance and complexity," says Mirren. "Still, Betty is quite sweet. She doesn't appear to be strong or tough at all. Like a lot of people, she feels there's something missing in her life. She's looking for companionship, someone to go out to dinner with or to the theater, and along comes this man, Roy, who's funny and engaging and could be exactly what she's looking for."
In fact, it soon seems that these two have made a connection"two people in search of something special who have decided to take a chance on each other. Exploring not only the art of deception but that of relationships, "The Good Liar" offers the tacit, somewhat cynical acknowledgement that success at either so often depends upon those involved having the same skill set.
Ian McKellen, marking his fourth collaboration with Condon, says, "Puzzles and complications make for a very entertaining story. I judge a script first and foremost on whether this is a film I would like to see, and I like stories where you don't know what's going to happen next. There are times when I think you'll catch your breath because something happens that you hadn't foreseen."
In keeping with that promise, McKellen scrupulously avoids describing the goings-on too closely. Instead, he offers, "Let's just say it's two rather interesting people who go on a date together," before slyly suggesting… "they may have different agendas."
One thing is certain: when they meet, Roy is expertly sizing Betty up. Beneath his flawless manners and the sparkle in his blue eyes is a shameless scheme to woo her, exploit her vulnerabilities… and abscond with every penny she has. Already, he believes he's halfway home. Well taken care of but admittedly at loose ends since her husband died, Betty is warm, compassionate, lonely and perhaps a bit more welcoming than wise.
However, despite Roy's confidence in his well-honed prowess and the role he's about to play, it's possible this woman isn't quite what he takes her to be. Granted, his whole life may be a web of lies…but who's to say there isn't also more to Betty than meets the eye? She may have secrets of her own.
For one thing, it appears that Betty has laid in some insurance in the form of her grandson, Stephen, who waits nearby with a car to escort her safely home should her date go south. "Just a precaution," she explains. And the boy does worry about her. Of course, Roy is all understanding, though it's clear that a protective young man in the picture is the last thing he wants.
Stephen is played by Russell Tovey, who is joined in the supporting cast by Jim Carter as Vincent, Roy's longtime partner in crime.
If the details of Roy's personal life arouse Stephen's suspicion, good-natured Betty doesn't make an issue of it. Roy's out for the afternoon? Going to see a friend in the hospital? No questions asked. "There's a fair amount of mystery in his life, and various people whose connections to him aren't quite clear, so there's always the sense that something is going on in the shadows," Mirren observes.
Though it doesn't seem to dampen Betty's interest in her new suitor, what she doesn't know about Roy is always the unspoken factor. It adds a measure of uncertainty to everything as well as a heightened risk of danger, should she get innocently drawn into the crossfire from whatever other games he's running.
The truth is, for a man who lives by his wits and can't resist the adrenaline rush"nor likely the ego boost"of a well-executed, high-stakes con, fleecing wealthy women is something of a side hustle for Roy. He usually has more than one iron in the fire.
"In a sense, the story reveals the fascinating pathology of a career con man," notes Condon. But although the Nicholas Searle novel on which the film is based focuses more on Roy's trajectory, Condon instinctively saw it as a cinematic two-hander between Betty and Roy" or Helen and Ian"where, he adds, "the female character and her point of view have equal weight. It really begins and ends with this relationship that develops between the two of them."
"Right from the start it was clear to us that we wanted a proper duel," concurs producer Greg Yolen. "A huge part of the appeal of this film is the chance to see these titans working together, bringing such nuance and style to these roles. It's a fabulous pairing that was a preposterously long time coming."
It was Yolen who first discovered the novel and offered it to his filmmaking partner of more than a decade just as Condon was embarking on a transatlantic flight. "By the time Bill landed six hours later, I had an email in my inbox," Yolen recounts. "He said, 'This is a movie!' I think Bill's exceptional talent as a director is his ability to get deeply into complex characters and stories that raise a lot of questions, and to create a sophisticated piece of work that doubles as cracking entertainment. 'The Good Liar' is a multi-level emotional mystery that slowly breaks itself open and reveals new angles."
Condon and Yolen tapped acclaimed screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher"with whom they'd so successfully collaborated on "Mr. Holmes""to adapt the book into a screenplay. Recalls Hatcher, "Every now and then I'll bump into something and say, 'Oh yeah, I want a crack at that.' This was definitely one of those. In the middle of the story is a scam, in the middle of the scam looks like a love story, and in the middle of that is something else. It's like Russian dolls: every time you twist the head off one, you find another one inside."
Adapting Searle's tale for the screen meant bringing a greater portion of the action into present-day, where technology plays an integral role and where the past remains a dark shadow. "The book reveals things earlier and the suspense is about when the characters will discover what the reader already knows," Hatcher explains, "whereas the film takes more of an objective approach, allowing the audience to take on the point of view of first one character and then the other."
It was all good for Searle, who declares, "I loved the screenplay; Jeffrey did a great job. It's different, but equally close to the spirit of the book and I'm absolutely cool with that. Bill was a fantastic choice to direct. He has such a sensitivity for character. He's done a diverse range of movies, all of them with real heart at the center, and I like the way he focuses on the individuals as well as the larger story."
As Betty and Roy spend more time together, "The Good Liar" takes us from Roy's stomping grounds amid the bustling thoroughfares of London to Betty's placid suburban home… but not so far into their hearts and minds. To the casual observer, they're just another couple enjoying each other's company: Betty smiling and revitalized and Roy, with charismatic aplomb, telling his stories and reveling in the thrill of the chase.
"As we know, bad people can be filled with charm and wit to the point that audiences will even begin to root for them," Condon suggests. "It's interesting to try and make them complicit in that, to possibly be distracted by those qualities and not look at what's underneath." But what's underneath is ultimately what "The Good Liar" is all about.
Cast and Characters
Having seen Mirren and McKellen match wits on the Broadway stage some years ago in Strindberg's "The Dance of Death," Condon says, "I knew they were great sparring partners." But one thing that surprised and delighted him once production began on "The Good Liar" was the distinctly disparate ways in which the two approached their craft"a contrast in styles not unlike the characters they portray.
"For Helen," he begins, "I think it's more about the immediacy of the experience and how it all comes to life in the moment, whereas with Ian, it's all about rehearsal and discussion, and examining the script from every angle as well as the blocking, costumes, and props. It was fascinating to watch their interaction. At some point, first one and then the other drew me aside to express how much in awe they were of each other and to marvel at each other's technique, which was so different from their own, like two ways of seeing the world."
Considering their theatrical résumés, the actors likewise appreciated Condon's own approach. "I think it's partly why we got on so well, immediately"that we both love the theater," offers McKellen.
Mirren adds, "Bill knows theater and it shows in his film work. There's a practicality and straightforwardness to it, a way of getting to the point quickly. And his writing background as well was a huge advantage in terms of honing the dialogue in a scene; he has a writer's understanding of what to cut or what's missing."
Comparing the way in which audiences gain insight about the two leads, Condon goes on to say, "From the beginning it's Roy we learn the most about in terms of his life and activities, whereas Betty plays things much closer to the vest. She's mostly seen from Roy's point of view, which makes Helen's performance all the more challenging because within that context"a 'mark,' a homebody, a lonely widow"you come to realise that's not quite all there is to it."
"As we see her," Mirren volunteers, "she's a nice person. She's intelligent, but with a sort of innocence about her and a sense of decency. She's also direct, which I like."
But intelligence can be a subjective commodity. It's possible to be highly educated in one area of expertise such as art, history or literature, yet know next to nothing about finances and investments because, perhaps, there used to be a spouse at home who took charge of such things. When it comes to Betty, this all-too-common lapse is what Roy is counting on. As Condon asserts, "It's what all cons count on."
Consequently, it was Mirren's task to play Betty, he describes, "as slightly less sophisticated about certain things. But what you don't want is a person who comes across as unconvincingly naïve. Betty is bright, there's no denying that. Helen just has to bring it down a couple of points and it's that kind of subtlety that she does so brilliantly. That's part of what's so delicate about the movie. It's not a traditional mystery in that we're not pretending that Betty isn't also holding something back. You get just a sense of it, possibly, but you can't imagine what it is, or why, or how she's planning to use it."
With Roy, meanwhile, a great deal is immediately revealed regarding his plans and various business deals, not to mention the depth of his determination to get what he wants. And yet, so much about him remains unknowable, a fact that McKellen teases by acknowledging, "If I talk about Roy, I might be saying something Roy wouldn't want me to tell you. That he's a con man is rapidly obvious, but who he actually is, where he comes from and what his motives are, are part of the fun of watching the story unwind. His mustache is real; I'll tell you that much."
It's that dry sense of humor, along with McKellen's other gifts, that Condon has come to count upon in his performances. "Ian is one of the world's preeminent Shakespearean actors," he says, "with a gallery of film villains to his credit, but I believe it was 'Lord of the Rings' and that wonderful, magical twinkle he brought to Gandalf that made him beloved around the world by a new legion of fans. He brings all of those elements together in Roy."
As the weeks progress, Betty and Roy draw closer by degrees, until a rather well-timed accident puts their relationship on a faster track. Roy, having taken a minor tumble, bruises his ankle and can't manage the steps to his third-floor walk-up in the city, prompting Betty to offer him the use of her spare bedroom until he's back on his feet.
It's an entirely typical and generous impulse that seriously upsets her well-meaning but headstrong grandson, Stephen, a doctoral student, played by Russell Tovey. He's been trying in vain to persuade her to put the brakes on things, at least until he can run a background check on Roy. "Stephen is someone who pushes and he's not afraid of being aggressive or antagonistic," Tovey says. "He cares for Betty and has taken on this protective role, but he probably takes it too far. He's very dubious about this man coming into her life and frustrated that Betty and Roy have become so close, so quickly. It's a constant challenge for him to keep his emotions in check and he becomes a real thorn in Roy's side."
Consequently, Stephen's own relationship with Betty becomes increasingly strained as, above all, Betty prizes her independence: her home, her life, her decisions.
Citing Tovey's standout performance in "The History Boys" and his leading role in the recent London stage production of "Angels in America," Condon says, "He's an actor I've always wanted to work with. Stephen is a part that could have gone in another direction. He could have been a more traditionally conventional, uptight, academic and a bit of a prig. I really liked how Russell brought a different kind of life to it."
Though Stephen's reaction to Roy is less than enthusiastic, Tovey couldn't have been happier to reunite with McKellen, with whom he worked on the 2011 short "Lady Grey London." "Ian is just cool," he says. "He's not at all his age; he's like a dude. I loved hanging out with him. And Helen is heaven, just heaven. At one point I was aware that I was standing next to Gandalf and Queen Elizabeth"these actors who are so well-respected and with such incredible careers and yet they're so grounded and gracious. When you do scenes together and they're just in the moment with you, it's the most rewarding experience."
Insofar as Stephen tries to look out for Betty's interests as much as she will allow it, Roy has his own second: a man he calls Vincent, played by Jim Carter. But it's not affection keeping Vincent close. He and Roy are longtime mates in the fraud trade, during which the agile Vincent has presumably donned a range of supporting roles in whatever scam Roy has cooked up. When audiences first see him, he's masquerading as a wire operator for an international banking transaction engineered to bilk some volatile Russian gangsters. Later, Vincent appears as a staid financial planner Roy introduces to Betty to secure her savings in a low-risk, high-return account that might sound to some people just a little too good to be true.
"We don't know how they got together but they've obviously been doing this a long time because they're quite slick as a team," says Carter. "Theirs is a well-oiled routine, as they've been conning people for years; it's their act. They're just two guys looking to make a quick buck and it sort of emerges through the story that this might be their last big score."
Working alongside McKellen for the first time since "Richard III" in the mid-'90s, "was great fun," Carter attests. "We get on like a house on fire and he's so generous to act with, it's a treat."
Theirs was an easy, conspiratorial rapport that the actors fully replicated on screen. At first, Condon recalls, "You think there are many actors of a certain age in England who would be right for this part but then, when you dig deeper into the qualities and the moments and scenes that character plays, it becomes a much shorter list and that was headed by Jim Carter. There often isn't much of an emotional connection between the people in this story, but certainly you could argue that whatever warmth exists in Roy's life comes from Vincent."
On Location In England
Having now completed a third film production in London"following "Mr. Holmes" and 2017's "Beauty and the Beast""the New York City native and U.S.-based Condon registers an immense respect and enthusiasm for what some might call a tough proposition.
"As soon as you say it, you're always given the lecture about how absolutely impossible it is to shoot in London, it's so busy and so active, and you can't stop traffic…and it's all true," he relates with a laugh. "But Greg and I love shooting in London; it's spectacular. Especially on a project like this, where very little was built, you have all this history and extraordinary locations to choose from, all in one place."
The film's practical sites included an apartment block in Belsize Park that housed Roy's bachelor flat with its classic vaulted ceilings; Hatchards bookshop in the city's celebrated Piccadilly shopping district; the Fortnum & Mason department store; and the famed Lock & Co. Hatters on St. James Street, where Betty helps Roy scout for a new topper.
Their brief shopping spree required some creative maneuvering, as Greg Yolen outlines: "It's a logistical challenge to be shooting in the middle of Piccadilly. We couldn't close the street, so it meant trying to keep the crew footprint very small and making sure you're all tucked in so that pedestrians are able to flow around you"and not so they're walking into the street and getting hit by taxi cabs. The key was to figure out how to do it quickly."
Their efforts proved worthwhile, as the finished scene authentically conveys the energy and flavor of that world-famous square of high-end commercial real estate, combined with the light-hearted air of a new couple sharing a bit of high spirits. But there were hurdles yet to come, most notably a scene set in Charing Cross Station on the London Underground that the crew captured entirely on site. It involved collaboration from multiple departments, as well as the local TfL (Transport for London) Rail authority, who are understandably cautious about scenes involving any kind of violence perpetrated on their tracks and so rarely allow film crews to capture that kind of footage. For "The Good Liar," they made an exception.
"It was probably the film's most complicated sequence," Yolen states. "There was a huge crowd component, plus visual effects and stunt components. It's not easy to shoot on a subway platform; it was very tricky. Every time we wanted another take, we had to back the train out, and then we had to wait and hit it at just the right moment. But our crew did a fabulous job and we got everything we needed."
In the scene, Roy encounters a tenacious adversary at the platform's edge. Before the much younger man has an inkling of what's happening, Roy deftly upsets his balance with a twist of the wrist and a jab with his umbrella, toppling him onto the tracks in a single, flowing motion" revealing beyond any doubt his cold-blooded nature and the shocking lengths to which he'll go to safeguard his interests. VFX supervisor Glen Pratt explains, "The stunt was performed on the tracks with a wire pull. We timed the train, which we then shot coming in, from a locked-off position, so we had that as a separate pass. We then had the action with Ian and the stunt double, with the stunt double getting pulled onto the track and, once we were happy with that, we combined the two in post-production."
Though the victim's part was completed at the crucial moment by a stunt performer, McKellen himself played Roy's part to a T…lethal umbrella and all. From there, the filmmakers moved to Leatherhead, Surrey, just outside of London, to find the single-story house that represented the exterior of Betty's quiet suburban home. Interiors of the home were then built on a soundstage at Shepperton Studios.
Production designer John Stevenson says, "We decided to use a muted palette for the overall look. Roy is a character full of mystery and artful guile, and so his gentlemanly flat commands an even darker, more ominous palette. We nicknamed this 'whiskey and cigars'" ochre walls, leather sofas, expensive art and antiques suggestive of a man with expensive but traditional taste.
"In contrast," Stevenson continues, "we felt that Betty's house evoked a more traditionally feminine space, with pastel colors and a sense of deceptive calm. This is a world of 'frames within frames,' allowing for a greater sense of depth in a relatively confined space. Long corridors, the careful positioning of doors and frosted panels also helped the sense of threat within the space and gave the camera freedom to move unhindered."
"John did a wonderful job of creating a deceptively bland and featureless house, where much of the action takes place, with so many interesting layers, and an overall quality that puts you slightly ill at ease" Condon attests.
In that sense, Betty's home is just one more thread in a tapestry of suggestion as "The Good Liar" serves up its clues. Similarly, the sudden jarring violence of Roy's excursions into the city are juxtaposed with the soft, dreamy tableaux of a tea room luncheon and conversations in which the simplest words and glances can telegraph so much. Or nothing at all.
The film's enigmatic atmosphere and color scheme were also carried in the work of cinematographer Tobias Schliessler and costume designer Keith Madden.
Even working alongside editor Virginia Katz in the editing bay after filming wrapped, the director found himself measuring the meanings in every frame. "I have to say this movie was a pleasure from start to finish, but perhaps my favorite part was the editing," he says. "Figuring out how to dole out the bits of information about the story and the characters was so tricky. Just the addition or subtraction of a single shot, or a phrase, made such a difference that it was like being inside the world's greatest crossword puzzle. And it was similar for the scoring, which is the final element to tie the pieces together."
Condon collaborated with composer Carter Burwell, noting, "The music sort of starts with a romantic, European feel to the opening scene and then it changes. Carter is a master of bringing out emotions that may exist under the surface and, if you go back and know what you're looking for, he has a wonderful way of dropping little musical clues throughout."
Once all is revealed, Yolen observes, "There's a kind of residual effect where you can look back on the performances and realize how many things they were playing at the same time. I think it makes the film a very rich experience that will hopefully provoke a lot of surprising and interesting reactions."
In a story about secrets and lies, Condon concludes, "the best part of watching a movie like this is that you never know what's going to happen"or why. And that's the fun of it."
The Good Liar
Release Date: December 5th, 2019