Saturday, April 13, 2024

“THE LESSON”

THE STORY – Liam, an aspiring and ambitious young writer, eagerly accepts a tutoring position at the family estate of his idol, renowned author JM Sinclair. But soon, Liam realizes that he is ensnared in a web of family secrets, resentment, and retribution.

THE CAST – Richard E. Grant, Julie Delpy & Daryl McCormack

THE TEAM – Alice Troughton (Director) & Alex MacKeith (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 103 Minutes


One of the rallying cries of cinema lovers in the last few years has been the dearth of mid-budget films for adults. Chamber pieces, character dramas, and tight, little paranoid thrillers… they have all become rarer in cinemas in recent years (outside of awards season, at least) as the business has moved more towards massive CGI-driven, IP-based spectacle. These types of films have not disappeared completely, but their absence in cinemas has been felt, which is a large part of why Alice Troughton’s “The Lesson” feels like such a cause for celebration. Here is a proud piece of middlebrow trash for upper-middle-class adults to enjoy in the plush cinema seats with an alcoholic beverage, a nasty little psychological thriller about wealthy people in mourning taking it out on each other — and their perceived lessers — in a tony English estate while the audience sits back and watch.

To be fair, this might not have worked at all without Richard E. Grant — one of cinema’s most accomplished scenery-chewers — in the lead role. Grant plays the famed author J.M. Sinclair, who angrily storms out of a live interview in the film’s delicious opening after the interviewer asks if the death of his son has affected his writing. In the audience that day was Liam Sommers (Daryl McCormack), a fan and aspiring author who works as a tutor. He ends up securing a live-in job tutoring the author’s teenage son Bertie (Stephen McMillan) in preparation for University entrance exams. The death of Bertie’s brother still hangs over the family like a shroud: Bertie cannot escape the feeling of inferiority now that his father’s favored son is gone, and matriarch Hélène (Julie Delpy) moves morosely through the house like a ghost, barely able to live through the grief that Sinclair himself tries to avoid actively. Liam, whose guest room provides a perfect view of Sinclair’s office space, at first tries to use his idol’s presence to his advantage, trying his best to write when he writes and then insinuate himself into his employer’s world so well that he becomes a part of the family. However, the poor boy ends up becoming a pawn in the family’s increasingly tense war of wills, used as a tool by others to get what they want, until Liam gets wise and wakes up to the games being played around him. Once he inevitably uncovers this family’s secrets, who has the actual upper hand? And what will they do with it?

“The Lesson” feels like an adaptation of a novel, and, in a sense, it is: The film is presented as a flashback that is also Liam’s debut novel, immediately putting the question of authorship and ownership of stories front and center. Whose story is this? Does Liam have the right to tell it? How much of it is even true? This tension permeates the film, especially after Sinclair states his philosophy on writers: Average writers may (foolishly) attempt something original, while good writers are smart enough to borrow from their betters, but the greats? “Great writers steal.” This line sticks with Liam enough that he puts it up on his vision board alongside notes about his novel and the Sinclair family’s peccadilloes. Thankfully, McCormack’s boundless charisma carries his subtle performance through long stretches where Liam does very little other than wordlessly react to the drama going on around him. It is an intelligent performance that causes viewers to constantly question what exactly Liam wants and how aware he is of how those around him are using him. Unfortunately, the moroseness plaguing the Sinclair family creates a fog so thick that the film itself cannot escape it, leading to a first half that feels labored and heavy.

Thankfully, the film has an ace up its sleeve with Grant’s ferocious performance. Beginning the film as a quick-to-anger father in mourning, Grant slowly but steadily turns up the dials as Sinclair lets Liam into his life, finding the bitterness that fuels the sadistic glee Sinclair takes in exerting his will over others. It’s a performance that only gets more delicious as it goes, culminating in a climactic scene that allows Grant to fully unleash himself and swallow the scenery whole. And yet, for all his scenery-chewing, Grant never feels like he’s giving too much. In fact, his live-wire energy proves precisely what the film needs in order to work.

“The Lesson” is just as interested in being a character study about grief as it is a psychological thriller. In her feature directorial debut, Troughton proves a master at tone-setting, leaning into genre trappings whenever possible in order to keep the film from getting too bogged down by its focus on grief. Credit must be paid to screenwriter Alex MacKeith for keeping Sinclair fully human instead of turning him into an all-knowing master of psychological gamesmanship. This isn’t “Sleuth,” even though it takes several cues from that venerable battle of wits between authors, and everyone involved seems to be on the same page in terms of how to treat the material. While the ace cast — Delpy and McMillan ensure their characters always feel specific, as opposed to the tropes they are on the page — takes everything seriously from a character perspective, Troughton and her team run with the genre trappings, ensuring that the film is a fun time. Isobel Waller-Bridge’s overly ornate classical score is the perfect soundtrack, feeling perfectly in sync with the handsome-looking estate on which the bulk of the film takes place while promising florid emotions around every corner.

For most of the first act, the film very much presents itself as a tony literary adaptation. Still, as it goes on and the characters uncover secrets and get nastier with each other, the film’s pacing picks up, and it embraces genre more and more. While it’s never entirely humorous, it finds humor in embracing genre as thoroughly as it does, playing both to and against the audience’s expectations in thoroughly entertaining ways. It may be a bit uneven, but “The Lesson” so fully embraces what it is that it’s hard not to enjoy it for exactly that. The film’s uniqueness in the current cinematic landscape may lead one to overvalue it a bit, but its rarity is something to be valued. Hopefully, films like “The Lesson” will prove to be not so rare now that it’s reminded us of just how entertaining they can be.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Richard E. Grant gives a delectably devious performance in this handsomely-mounted psychological thriller that lovingly embraces its genre.

THE BAD - The film is dreary and slow-paced until the last act.

THE OSCARS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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Latest Reviews

<b>THE GOOD - </b>Richard E. Grant gives a delectably devious performance in this handsomely-mounted psychological thriller that lovingly embraces its genre.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The film is dreary and slow-paced until the last act.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b>None <br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"THE LESSON"