“The Good Liar”–A Story Within a Story

The Good Liar, a 2019 crime thriller,   based on the titular novel by Nicholas Searle, is a cat-and-mouse plot featuring a septuagenarian wealthy widow, Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) and an octogenarian con artist  Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen). They meet on a first date scheduled through a dating app for seniors.

Roy obviously does not have good intentions and his motives are soon recognized as dishonorable by Betty’s grandson, Stephen (Russell Tovey), who grows increasingly suspicious and resentful.  Betty, on the other hand, seems smitten.  Will she see that Roy is a clever liar, not a kind gentleman who will assuage her loneliness?

This theme of the easily manipulated widow, who is too lonely and engulfed by grief to see reality for what it is, usually has few surprises.  Not so for The Good Liar.  Full of twists and turns that some viewers may think stretch credulity, like any good thriller the foreshadowing and clues are there if one watches carefully and asks why that scene is there.


Even if you guess the lying,  deception, and backstory, it is wonderful to  watch two much-loved veteran actors fine-tuning every nuance of their characters’ personalities, and every moment of their time on screen. While there are  occasional lapses into melodrama, a few subplot holes, and an ending that is weak while the true ending would have been chilling,  seeing Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren play unexpected characters against type is more than  entertaining.  They also have to engage in quite physically demanding action sequences that reward the viewer in and of itself, a tribute to their professionalism and stamina at the height of their game.  Ian McKellen is at times convincingly charming, menacing throughout, and vulnerable. Helen Mirren, the sweet widow and grandmother, has a multi-layered persona and pointed, scathing dialogue that asks the viewer:  Who is lying now?

This is a sleeper to add to your watch list!

Note:  Available on DVD (Netflix) and HBO streaming.

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“Mr. Holmes”—Not the Sherlock We All Know

 

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“Mr. Holmes” is an imaginary and revisionist take on Sherlock Holmes as a 93-year old dispirited and retired detective, featuring the incomparable Ian McKellen in the title role. This 2015 British-American film , based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, takes place in Sussex two years after the end of the Second World War. This interpretation, among the many Sherlock Holmes we have seen, focuses on the lonely and contemplative man struggling to remember his last case, not the analytical mind associated with the world’s most famous fictional detective.

Holmes, in the first stages of dementia, retires to his remote country home in a Sussex village with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (the superb Laura Linney) and young son, Roger (played by the astonishing newcomer, Milo Parker, who is a standout in every scene with McKellen). The young boy and his dour mother are the only human contacts Holmes now has. Holmes’ memory isn’t what it used to be.

Soon we see that Holmes has forgotten much of his last case’s details as he tries to become accustomed to retirement. Holmes only remembers fragments of the case: a confrontation with a worried husband, a secret with his beautiful but unstable wife, and a puzzling side story about the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and a Japanese family. Having returned from a journey to Japan where, in search of a rare plant for dementia, Holmes has witnessed the devastation of nuclear warfare and seems visibly shaken. The little boy Roger gradually becomes his closest confidante and assistant in recollecting what happened to the woman in his final detective assignment.

What I loved about this film? It captures the nuances of aging, of losing the identity most treasured but now diminishing as dementia sets in. The pace, unfortunately, can be painfully slow , even for BBC. Multiple flashbacks do not help either, leaving the viewer to guess why these scenes are important, but often frustrating with plot holes (especially the Japanese subplot).

Although “Mr. Holmes” is not fast-paced and not to all tastes, it is a niche movie for those who like character-driven stories as the main plot. The layering effect of the years and lives and incidents in the story require close attention. “Mr. Holmes” is an introspective journey—into the rabbit hole of the mysteries of life and love, before it is too late to remember.