Alice Troughton’s The Lesson Manages a Passing Mark But Not Full Honours

J. M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant) is long term British literary establishment. A feted writer who appears on talk shows and tours spinning out the adage “Average writers attempt originality. They fail. Universally. Good writers have the sense to borrow from their betters. But great writers steal.” The maxim itself could be applied to Alice Troughton’s The Lesson. Somewhere in Alex MacKeith’s script he has borrowed so often that the best the film can achieve is “good.” If the film had indulged in straight up winking theft it might have gone beyond feeling overly familiar and into the realm of proper camp satire. As it stands, The Lesson is frustrating because all the elements for something whole and satisfying are there, they just never come together with the promise delivered in the early part of the film.

Liam Sommers (Daryl McCormack) in the prologue of the film (like a book it is divided into chapters) is being interviewed about his breakout first novel. A novel about an ageing patriarch who is struggling to keep his family together. The film then cuts to Chapter One which is a younger Liam working as a tutor around Oxford after having completed his thesis. Through an agency he is hired to tutor the son of J. M. Sinclair and shuffled off to his remote manse in the country. Somewhat dazzled to be so close to his literary idol, Liam does everything he can to impress the extremely spiky Bertie (Stephen McMillan) the young student studying for his entry into Oxford, and Hélène (Julie Delpy) Sinclair’s urbane, sophisticated, and dissatisfied wife.

Soaking up the refined privilege of the Sinclair estate, Liam is to an extent willing to be relegated to “the help” if it means he can get some insight into Sinclair’s mind. The once great, now seemingly blocked, author who is still reeling from the suicide of his son Felix in the lake on the estate. Hélène appears to like him enough to offer him a contract outside of the agency with an NDA attached (“We have had issues with staff in the past,” she explains). Bertie doesn’t like him at all, yet Liam persists gently with the studies. Liam, for whom words have a special resonance that flow through him as if he has an identic memory for the literary form, struggles to pass on his love for literature to the embittered and sheltered teen.

A slow seduction begins but it’s hard to work out who is seducing whom. Liam breaks through Bertie’s reticence and distrust. Hélène floats around Liam like a wispy femme fatale who is simultaneously grounded in cynicism and thinly veiled disgust for her petulant husband. And of course, there is J. M. (James) Sinclair himself. The great man who is feverishly working on his comeback novel who takes Liam under his wing and professes his secrets to success over and over. At one moment Liam is given almost equal footing to Sinclair as they swap manuscripts, and almost immediately Sinclair takes that away when Liam notes that the third act of Sinclair’s book appears to be almost completely in another voice. Sinclair demotes Liam to “proof-reader,” and tells him that his manuscript shows he is utterly bereft of talent. Whatever Liam hoped to get from Sinclair is gone, but release from the Sinclair family will not come so easily.

While The Lesson hopes to be a twisty revenge thriller based on a unhappy family with their closet of secrets and resentments, it plays many of its cards too early. There is no great shock in learning that Sinclair had no scruples about stealing from anyone at all, including those he claims to have loved. Sinclair’s cruelty is as boundless as his ego: “Nothing can grow around him,” Bertie says. A man comprised of micro-aggressions that turn into no holds barred bullying, Sinclair is repellent. Richard E. Grant is chewing scenery with his caustic and gleefully villainous turn as Sinclair whose self-delusion has made him blind to the machinations moving around him.

Daryl McCormack as Liam has an ego as a writer and although he is ostensibly “destroyed” by his idol, he will do almost anything to be recognised. He is, in places, a mirror to Sinclair, which is perhaps why he stands as the perfect mark and catalyst for the events that transpire.

If anything, it is Julie Delpy as the master manipulator who seems out of place. By offering Liam a place at the head of the table replacing Sinclair, or dressing him in Felix’s old clothes, she is playing mind games that don’t completely make sense. Is Liam supposed to be son, lover, or husband? How has she really managed to twist Liam around her finger?

The Lesson isn’t awful by most metrics. It is just a minor work in the genre that could have been more if it committed to a tone. It isn’t funny enough to be a satire. It isn’t sexy enough to have the tinge of erotic thriller. It isn’t mysterious enough to keep anyone guessing. It isn’t camp enough to justify Grant’s performance in places. Despite Isobel Waller-Bridge’s excellent strident string and piano score, and a slew of well composed shots (especially emphasising Daryl McCormack’s startling eyes), and an estate that is just bucolic enough to be desirable and haunted enough to be uneasy, there isn’t enough to fully hook the viewer.

The Lesson is perhaps like Liam’s first and destroyed novel. Something that still needs to be refined to have a robust voice. There is something almost meta-textual when Liam points out that Sinclair’s ‘Rose Tree’ manuscript doesn’t have the ending that it deserves considering the excellence of the first two thirds. Alice Troughton’s debut film is stylish in several places and boasts terrific work by Grant and McCormack. However, it is deeply familiar even if you can’t put your finger exactly on where you’ve seen it all before, you certainly have in some domestic British crime thriller about miserable families and buried secrets. The Lesson manages good which is damning with faint praise, because it could have been great.

Director: Alice Troughton

Cast: Richard E. Grant, Julie Delpy, Daryl McCormack

Writer: Alex MacKeith

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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