Ian McKellen in The Good Liar (Photo: Warner)

★★★ (out of four)
STARS Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen

Here’s the thing about The Good Liar, the new adults-only movie featuring the dynamic duo of Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen. If you’ve seen the trailer, you probably know the twist. If you sit through the first half-hour, you probably can deduce where it’s heading. But like many a sturdy thriller, there’s more than meets the eye, and before it’s over, the film will have deepened into something more than just a story about a con man trying to bilk an elderly woman out of her money.

Writer-director Bill Condon, who has worked with McKellen on three previous occasions (most notably 1998’s Gods and Monsters, for which Condon won a scripting Oscar), has taken Nicholas Searle’s novel and turned it into a gift for his frequent leading man. McKellen plays Roy Courtnay, a seasoned con man who operates in tandem with his friend Vincent (Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter). In their various stings, whether it’s on businessmen or lonelyhearts, Roy takes the lead while Vincent operates as a financier — this system has allowed them to bilk numerous people out of their fortunes.

Their latest target is Betty McLeish (Mirren), a widow whose assets are worth close to a staggering three million pounds. The plan is for Roy to woo Betty (who has recently placed an ad on a dating site) to the point that she trusts him more than anyone else. Enter Vincent as Roy’s legal advisor, who will convince Betty to pool her wealth with that of Roy and move the combined amount into an offshore account. Before Betty can blink, Roy will empty the account and disappear from the scene, ready to move onto his next victim. Only this con proves to be a bit more complicated, largely due to the presence of Betty’s suspicious grandson Steven (Russell Tovey).

Although McKellen has played villains before, few have been as dark and dangerous as the one he essays in The Good Liar. The expected easy charm and twinkly demeanor are very much in evidence in the scenes in which Roy is courting Betty, but they disappear the nanosecond they part company, melting away to reveal a stone-faced sullenness and a casual air of evil usually associated only with serial killers and Gestapo officers.

The story takes a few hairpin turns as it heads toward its denouement, and, admittedly, some of it veers into preposterousness. In other words, this is the sort of thriller where certain situations must unfold in a precise manner for everything to work out as the script requires. That’s often a crippling deficiency in a thriller, but not here. With formidable performances by Mirren and McKellen and a plot that intensifies in meaning and motive, The Good Liar takes a gamble that pays off handsomely.

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