If online dating wasn’t already treacherous enough, it’s getting extra-hairy courtesy of a Hitchcock-style spin in “The Good Liar.”
An adaptation of Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel, the upcoming thriller (in theaters Nov. 15) finds Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen sharing the big screen for the first time: He plays an aging British con man looking for one last score and she’s a well-off widow he woos through email.
Director Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters,” “Beauty and the Beast”) promises suspense, mystery and “behavior that we’d probably disapprove of in real life, that great Hitchcockian thing of forcing you to be conflicted about how you’re feeling about certain events.”
Betty McLeish (Mirren) is a quiet English woman who’s lost her husband and is “vulnerable in the sense that she has great empathy with people,” the actress says. “She’s not wealthy but she’s very comfortably off, and there’s a gap in her life that is to do with companionship and having someone to go to the theater with or the cinema and go out to dinner with.”
She goes online and finds Roy Courtnay (McKellen), a charming, funny and self-deprecating guy who is, unbeknownst to her, “actually a double-dealing sort of character,” Mirren says. “He has various mysteries in his life, various people hanging around who we’re not quite sure who they are, so there’s obviously something going on.”
Once Betty opens her life to him, Roy becomes quite taken with the mark he’s supposed to be swindling, things are revealed about his past, and from there, “it’s twisty,” Mirren teases with a laugh.
Two other characters add to the overall intrigue: Jim Carter (“Downton Abbey”) stars as Roy’s longtime partner Vincent (“The kindly one, the one who has more of a moral compass,” Condon says), and Russell Tovey (“Quantico”) plays Betty’s grandson Stephen, who’s wary of her new suitor.
The last time Mirren worked with McKellen was 17 years ago on a Broadway revival of August Strindberg’s play “Dance of Death.” Although she knows McKellen well, doing the new thriller “was like meeting a new Ian, the film Ian, and likewise he was meeting the film Helen, which are in a way different creatures,” Mirren says.
“Good Liar” gave McKellen a chance to play a villain far afield from “the great charm and twinkle” of his real-life persona, Condon says. “It was fun to move him out of twinkle mode and get back in touch with that side that he is able to present so brilliantly.”
And Mirren is a foil “who can really go toe to toe and certainly match him in intelligence and in power,” Condon adds.
As much as Mirren enjoyed her character, she also loves the construction of a mystery and the idiosyncrasies required in her performance: “You sort of need to lead the audience by the nose, in a way.”
Although much of the mystery genre has “been taken over” by TV, Condon feels “it’s right for re-examination in cinema.” And he’s bringing it into modern times: While “The Good Liar” is a bit of a period piece – it’s set in 2008 (“There are websites but no apps”) – he says technology is integral to its puzzle and reveals.
“Although there are mountains and mountains of information out there, it’s still very easy to pull the wool over people’s eyes, as you can see by the recent election in America,” Mirren says. “Concealing becomes more prevalent and easier to do simply because everyone thinks that they’re reading the truth.”