Movie Review ~ The Lesson

The Facts:

Synopsis: An aspiring writer becomes a tutor for the family of literary giant J.M. Sinclair. But soon, it’s clear that his idol harbors secrets, lies, and a dark past not even the most imaginative writer could begin to fathom.
Stars: Richard E. Grant, Julie Delpy, Daryl McCormack, Stephen McMillan, Crispin Letts
Director: Alice Troughton
Rated: R
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Often, the setting where you can see a movie plays a part in how much you can enjoy it. I was fortunate to see the new thriller The Lesson on an afternoon when the sky suddenly turned dark and hazy, hinting that a summer shower was coming. It stayed that way for most of the film, with the torrential rain only arriving as it rounded the corner into its final act. That went a long way in setting the mood for what is, on the surface, a workmanlike (if expertly skilled) British manor house thriller which doesn’t so much quicken the pulse of its viewers to radical heights as it does keep it on a steady pace of engagement as it dives deeper into dark waters.

A framing device (which might remind you of a certain recent Cate Blanchett Oscar-nominated film) introduces us to author Liam Sommers (Daryl McCormack, Pixie), who is being asked about his new novel and its inspiration. Taking a breath, he moves to talk, and we are brought back to an earlier time when he was a struggling writer who would take the occasional side gig as a tutor to pay his bills while finishing his long-gestating first novel. Though set up with another assignment, his work thinks he’ll want to take this new client on. 

The son of famed author J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant, Persuasion) needs help preparing for his final exams that will secure his future at an esteemed University. Bertie (Stephen McMillan, Boiling Point) isn’t thrilled about the prospect of being attended to by another tutor, but his mother, Hélène (Julie Delpy, Avengers: Age of Ultron), insists, letting Liam know in no uncertain terms that Bertie’s acceptance into this University must be achieved at any cost. Though the dismissive J.M. is barely involved in Bertie’s day-to-day education, consumed with work on his much-anticipated new book, is it a coincidence that Hélène chose Liam for this live-in role? Especially considering Liam wrote a paper on J.M. in college and viewed him highly for his modern prose and bestselling novels?

Putting his desire for J.M. to read his work and his respect for the fussy novelist aside, Liam attempts to do what he can with Bertie, but he’s unknowingly walked into a family still in crisis after the loss of Bertie’s older brother. Drowned in the pond behind their elegant home, the Sinclairs rarely speak of the boy, but his presence looms large over their lives. The longer Liam stays in the guest quarters and sees the cracks in each persona firsthand, the more he begins to suspect he’s been hired (and asked to stay) for far more reasons beyond formal studies. Reasons that become more sinister the closer he gets to fiction vs. reality.

Spearheaded by a director and writer both making their feature film debuts, The Lesson benefits from a natural ease absent of great pretension. Stories about stuffy authors and a stately manse with secrets can tend toward the overheated, but screenwriter Alex MacKeith and director Alice Troughton mostly steer clear of those pitfalls. Sure, the framing device feels a bit ham-handed and doesn’t need to be there because it gives the film an unnecessary point we know we’ll circle back to. Yet the meat of the story and the performances found there are often riveting.

Coming off good notices for 2022’s Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, McCormick turns in another appealing performance, never showing his cards too far in advance. That makes his scenes with Grant have an authentic crackle, with both actors facing off nicely in increasingly passive-aggressive exchanges. While I wouldn’t say she’s been continually underrated, Delpy has been decidedly just outside Hollywood’s radar throughout her career. While she’s been in a bevy of celebrated films (receiving two Oscar nominations for writing 2005’s Before Sunset and 2014’s Before Midnight) and ventured into directing, her acting is still the core of her talent, and work like The Lesson reinforces why she’s one of the best.

Though MacKeith and Troughton throw a few sly twists into the final stretch, the lesson of The Lesson will not be anything that knocks the socks off mystery fans. It reveals itself to be well-plotted and even more well-intentioned but lacks a particular extra kick that would truly ensnare fans of a complex mystery. Even so, it’s so sharply made and performed that you shouldn’t pass it up, especially if a rainy day presents itself.

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