Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen shine in The Good Liar

With the star pair at the helm, director Bill Condon can afford to bend the rules of the thriller genre, says Simon Brew

The old Hollywood adage of the Eighties and Nineties went that if you made a big studio blockbuster film, you could do one ‘for yourself’ straight after. Those days feel long gone, but arguably, director Bill Condon has resurrected them with his new thriller.

He comes to the movie off the back of the $1bn-grossing live-action Disney remake of Beauty and the Beast, and while he originally was going to jump to a horror remake after that, fate landed him at the door of The Good Liar. It’s telling that in the current cinema environment a thriller with two named actors in it feels like something a little different.

Truthfully, too, it is. Here’s a big studio-backed film, led by two stars over 70 each, and it’s a flat-out delight to spend time in their company. Sir Ian McKellen, then, is Roy, a mysterious character who on the one hand comes across a little doddery and charming, and on the other is a conman looking for his next score. He quickly finds himself in the company of Dame Helen Mirren’s Betty, and a slow relationship between the pair starts to develop.

As do a few other plot threads too, with Russell Tovey coming into the mix as Betty’s son Steven, and Jim Carter – fresh from topping the box office in the Downton Abbey movie – as Roy’s cohort Vincent. Both are excellent too.

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

But Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher – adapting the novel by Nicholas Searle – wisely keep the focus firmly on the two leads. And here’s where Condon really delivers. He does something we rarely see in big movies: he takes his time. He pauses for silence. He allows space in his frame. Crucially, he lets his two leads absorb the gaze of the camera to deliver a pair of knockout performances.

There’s a real sense of confidence in the film, and that all concerned know they’ve got something good here. It helps too that the running time is a relatively lean 110 minutes, and it’s hard to begrudge it that.

Where it slips slightly is in the thriller element. There’s an interweaving con caper that Roy is setting up slowly playing out alongside the main event, and as it weaves towards its final act the air gradually goes out of that side of the film. It’s not so much a case of whether you see the developments coming, rather that it all feels a little less interesting than the scenes where Mirren and McKellen are on screen alone together.

A minor quibble, though. Never less than entertaining. The Good Liar is an anomaly from a major studio at this point in cinema, and all the more worth supporting as a result of that. There’s an old cliché that sometimes it’s worth paying money just to hear brilliant performers read the phone book. There’s a lot more in The Good Liar’s tank than that, but it’s a real delight to see two excellent actors getting two excellent roles in one really enjoyable movie. More please.

The Good Liar is in cinemas now