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Movie review: Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen showcase their acting chops in thriller

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren star in 'The Good Liar,' released in area theaters on Friday

A pair of top-flight British actors with decades of terrific work can only take a film so far, and in the case of director Bill Condon's "The Good Liar," that's about halfway to a compelling story. Even through a muddled plot that only really catches fire in the final 30 minutes, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen are too good to make something that is less than average.

It's clear from the outset that "The Good Liar" has a very niche audience and isn't the kind of movie for hardcore film junkies or people looking to find the meaning of life through art. It's a pretty solid adaptation of a story with themes we've seen plenty of times before.

Mirren plays wealthy widow Betty McLeish, who starts dating clever con man Roy Courtnay, played by McKellen. The sneaky Courtnay is after McLeish's money, pulling a rouse that he hopes is his biggest score yet.

The premise on its face is interesting enough for a made-for-TV movie or a miniseries that airs on Lifetime, but on the big screen it struggles to find legs. Were it not for Mirren's wit and McKellen's humorous tendencies, the narrative might have collapsed around them.

Instead, the duo keeps the film afloat until its final sequence, which features so many twists it's often hard to keep track. The ending is powerful enough, even if predictable, to make the previous slog worth it.

It is ultimately Mirren who shines through in "The Good Liar," even if the movie is billed with McKellen as her equal. As the truth of McLeish and Courtnay's collective pasts unrolls itself, we see Mirren portray McLeish with an emotional sensitivity that only an actor of her prowess is capable. She is a feminist hero with character traits that provide the film with a much-needed dose of realism, even if the writing is a bit spotty and heavy-handed.

McKellen's performance is entertaining, but Courtnay as a character devolves into a cliché as more is revealed about him. The mystery was the whole point with Courtnay and once the curtain was pulled in the early moments of the film it showed the audience something they had seen before far too many times – a bad guy with ill intentions, morally irredeemable despite his evident charisma.

This is a big studio movie, after all. We're not trafficking in moral ambiguities and introspective looks at human nature here. This is a movie based off a book starring a pair of aging, famous actors, and it's expectedly average.

The underlying message, only really conveyed at the film's conclusion, makes it worth seeing – and it's more of a mother-daughter flick than anything. My grandmother loved it and I expect my mom would too.

This film isn't really for me, which is fine. It is still worth a casual watch when flicking through channels on a weekend afternoon. It's only worth a trip to the theaters if this kind of film is your cup of tea, British pun intended.


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