Most films about old people are either tragic or saccharine – or both – while old people are often used as markers of authenticity and sentimentality in mainstream cinema more generally. It’s really refreshing, then, to encounter a film like The Good Liar, the third film after Gods and Monsters and Mr. Sherlock in Bill Condon’s loose trilogy of collaborations with Ian McKellen, all of which riff on popular conceptions of ageing in surprising and provocative ways. This time around, McKellen plays Roy Courtnay, a confidence trickster and career criminal who sets his sights on Betty McLeish, played by Helen Mirren, as his next target. Whereas Gods and Monsters inflected ageing through the queer politics of the 1990s, and Mr. Sherlock considered how detective fiction might look in a geriatric world, Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay for The Good Liar draws more heavily upon the smoky erotic thrillers that populated the British indie scene in the 1980s and late 1990s. For long stretches, this is the kind of film you could imagine Neil Jordan or Paul Greengrass directing during this period – it often reminded me of The Crying Game and The Long Good Friday – making for two of the most compelling performances from Mirren and McKellen I’ve seen.
Part of what makes The Good Liar so powerful is that it’s easy to glimpse the saccharine film it could have been. From the first meet-cute, when Roy and Betty go for a date after meeting on a seniors’ dating site, Condon follows many of the same cues as a romcom, digging deep into everything that makes Mirren and McKellen such cosy and comforting actors at this point in their careers. These early scenes play particularly well upon McKellen’s avuncular charm – even though we know that Roy is tricking Betty, it still feels like there might be a cutesy explanation, and that he might be a “good” liar after all. These romcom cues continue until quite late into the film, while Roy’s more psychopathic qualities emerge just as gradually. While there may be very brutal, sudden incursions of violence into the story, McKellen’s breezy charm quickly closes around them once again, making it almost impossible to believe that the film is actually as brutal as its most violent and unforgiving moments. Indeed, Condon often seems to be unfolding two entirely separate films, one in which Betty and Roy embark upon an unlikely romance, and one centred on Roy’s criminal life, which involves deals with “foreign nationals who want to join the British investor class.”
In other words, The Good Liar is acutely interested in the ways old people are depicted in cinema, and the ways in which kitsch spectacles of old people are used to facilitate market forces. While this kind of kitsch often occurs on the fringes of critical acclaim, it’s essential to the survival of cinema as a global form, since only people aged sixty and above tend to prioritise cinema over streaming media and illegal downloading. Coming at the tail end of Condon’s loose trilogy, The Good Liar seems peculiarly prescient of this situation, and of the ways in which the experience of old people is used to broker cinematic authenticity, especially through and within reminiscences of World War II as a point of generational consensus. Time and again, Roy plays on WWII to broker a generational affinity with Betty, who has recently retired from teaching history at Oxford. Between them, Condon conjures up a vision of WWII that is both historical and experiential, but above all embedded in the privileged knowledge of older generations – the last generations to recall a real world war.
No surprise, then, that Roy takes Betty to Inglourious Basterds for their first date, and then spends the rest of the evening discussing whether or not its historical inaccuracies are justified by its message. In fact, this date seems to be the only reason why the film is set in 2007, since it spawns a courtship that is largely mediated through pastiches of WWII, culminating with Roy and Betty taking a romantic visit to Berlin, where they visit the Brandenburg Gate. The importance of their lived experience of WWII is only intensified by the presence of Betty’s grandson, Steven, Russell Tovey, the only person standing between her and Roy’s schemes. Steven has inherited his grandmother’s interest in history, and is currently completing a thesis on Albert Speer that raises the old question of whether he was, in fact, the archetypal “Good Nazi,” as Speer himself tried to claim. Since Steven is initially quite sceptical of Roy, he follows him and Betty to Berlin, where he proves that Roy was actually a Nazi soldier who stole the identity of a British soldier after being ordered to assassinate him. In the defining moment in her relationship, however, Betty accepts that this is factually true, but accepts Roy nonetheless, because she personally understands the compromises people had to make, and the opportunities they had to take, following WWII.
While Steven may have proved that Roy was a Nazi, an identity thief and probably a war criminal, Betty’s shared experiential understanding of WWII proves to be the defining factor here, especially since Roy also appeals to Steven’s inability to ever comprehend the extremities people are driven to during a world war. Roy’s exculpatory version of his past unfolds as a sepia-toned film-within-the-film that plays like a parodic version of the WWII cinema that is normally targeted at older people – cinema in which shared experience of WWII trumps any demand for plausibility or morality when it comes to character expectation. What makes The Good Liar so powerful, however, is that this reduction of WWII to a generational nostalgia image is exposed to be a mendacious fantasy, as a further twist reveals that Betty, too, is German, and was sexually assaulted by Roy as a young woman, shortly before he joined the Nazi party. In a spectacular denouement, we learn that she has spent decades waiting for her revenge, and orchestrated the whole situation after recognizing Roy on the seniors dating site where they met. Not only did she rent out a suburban house and furnish it so that she would seem vulnerable and naïve, but her grandson, Steven, is actually a gay friend, who helped prepare the house with his boyfriend.
After enticing Roy back to the house – now stripped of furniture – once he thinks he’s completed his scam, Betty proceeds to correct the sepia-toned film that he’s prepared for her. In a sense, Roy stands in for the Hollywood apparatus here, handing Betty a saccharine, tragic and generationally flattering version of WWII that he expects her to swallow, so he’s unable to process it when she turns the narrative back on him, eventually succumbing to a stroke in shock that leaves him paralysed for the film’s epilogue. Before he does so, he tries to invoke WWII, and falls back upon his most avuncular appeal yet, but this time around Betty assures him that his fascist inclinations predated WWII anyway, and revels in being able to perform a version of vulnerable old age that was even more compelling in its “authenticity” than his own. In a striking epilogue, we now cut to Betty, looking considerably younger, in the midst of a picnic with her real family, where she strolls casually from person to person before wandering down to a river, where she warns a group of young girls – presumably her real grandchildren – to “be careful of the water – it’s deeper than it looks.”
In this final sequence, Mirren’s body language is almost unrecognizable from the main part of the film, which now feels like a filmic performance she put on for Roy’s benefit, trafficking in all the tropes of saccharine, tragic and abject old age that pass for authenticity in most films about ageing. Not only does The Good Liar punctures the sentimental renditions of WWII in cinema designed for older viewers, but it questions an even deeper Hollywood equation of old age with “authentic” cinema. Here, both characters perform old age, but Betty performs it better, nailing Roy’s confidence when she acts as if their generational rapport, and their shared experience of WWII, supervenes the opinion of her grandson, and young people more generally. By contrast, this final sequence insists that old people are still accountable to the present and future, like Betty guiding her grandchildren through the stream, which is perhaps the most enticing vision of ageing that I have seen on the big screen since Mr. Sherlock, and a wonderfully open-ended finale to this idiosyncratic trilogy of films.