“The Lesson is one of those rare films that manages to amaze, engage, and constantly surprise us. It is, without doubt, a British gem of a film.”
THE LESSON is a 2023 British thriller film directed by Alice Troughton, in her cinematic directorial debut. With a screenplay by Alex MacKeith, the film stars Richard E. Grant, Julie Delpy and Daryl McCormack. There is an old adage: Never judge a book by its cover. Considering the film deals with the literary world, that adage has never felt so apt. It can also be used to describe the film itself. Every once in a while, you go and see a movie without expectations. I certainly did when I saw the film. 103 minutes later, I walked out of the screen in amazement. Some may look at the poster for the film, and the synopsis and simply feel like it wouldn’t be of interest to them. Trust me, those people will be missing out on a gem of a film.
The film is split into five chapters: Prologue, Part I, Part II, Part III, and Epilogue. And just like a book, every chapter plays a huge part in making the movie whole. We open with the prologue. Liam Sommers (Daryl McCormack) is being interviewed on stage regarding his latest novel. As he answers questions about the inspiration behind his literary work, he pauses before smiling. Before we get his answer, the screen cuts to black and we begin Chapter I.
Liam is an aspiring author who is hired by Hélène Sinclair (Julie Delpy) to tutor her son Bertie (Stephen McMillan) to help him get into university. The terms offered to Liam are generous, including the use of a small cottage on the grounds of the Sinclair estate. It also helps that Liam idolises Hélène’s husband, the famous author J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant.) The Sinclair family are still reeling from the loss of their older son, who drowned in the lake on the estate. Sinclair himself is asked on stage if his loss has been used in his latest book. After thinking about his answer, Sinclair angrily gives his response before storming off stage.
Liam is writing his own novel while tutoring Bertie, which brings him to Sinclair’s attention more. Initially dismissive of the younger man, Sinclair seemingly begins to warm to Liam, all the while alienating his wife and son with his weird, mocking and cruel ways. Sinclair finishes his latest novel and gives it to Liam to critique, while Liam reciprocates by giving Sinclair the book he has been working on. When Liam criticizes the last third of Sinclair’s novel, Sinclair describes Liam’s efforts as nothing more than ‘an airport novel’, much to Liam’s anger. Liam now discovers he’s involved in a web of family secrets, resentment, and retribution.
For such a small cast, every one of them shows their respective skills to the world. McCormack has the bulk of the narrative on his shoulders throughout and shows what a fine actor he is. We are with Liam every step of the way during the film, and even though McCormack is third-listed in the credits, it is his film to carry for the most part. And he is quite simply superb in his role.
Stephen McMillan as Bertie also gives a performance to be applauded. When we first meet him, we instantly dislike him. He seemingly has everything someone so young could ask or wish for. His manner puts us off him initially. However, he grows on us throughout the proceedings. He does indeed have almost everything except the most important thing. His father’s love and respect. McMillan gives us a character that we can all relate to.
Crispin Letts as Ellis, the family butler, in a smaller role, has us on edge throughout. We can never get a handle on how exactly Ellis feels towards his employers or indeed Liam himself. Although he seemingly likes Liam, we ask ourselves ‘Where do his loyalties lie?’ Is he just a simple family butler taking care of his employers and the hired help, or does he have a more sinister motive? Just when we think we’ve got a handle on him, he makes us change our minds and doubt ourselves. Crispin Letts gives a marvellous performance, a complete standout.
JULIE DELPY AND RICHARD E. GRANT
As the married couple Hélène and J.M, Julie Delpy and Richard E. Grant are, quite simply, a revelation. Both play off each other to perfection. Julie Delpy as the seemingly despairing, downtrodden Hélène has our hearts and sympathies from around a third of the way through the film. We feel for her at every turn. Even though at times she is dismissive of Liam at the beginning, the friendship they develop and share throughout gives us a sense of satisfaction. Julie Delpy is sublime here. Even the scenes she shares with Richard E. Grant in his study late at night have us holding our breath. Is she allowing him to have his way with her willingly or is she just wandering to his needs?
Richard E. Grant is an enigma throughout. We first see him as a successful writer, one that is brilliant in what he does. As time goes on though, we discover who the real person is underneath that smiling persona. J.M. is a controlling man, a dominant man whose word is the law in his own household. He is extremely unlikeable. But we also see that he’s using Liam for his own ends, his own needs. Feigning friendship, he manipulates everything throughout. Or does he? He comes across as a man who is grieving for the son he lost. Or is he? Perhaps there’s a different motive for the grief he feels. Richard E. Grant is magnificent in his role in what is possibly a career-best performance.
The cinematic directorial debut by Alice Troughton is breathtaking. After cutting her teeth on TV shows such as Doctors, Eastenders, Holby City, Doctor Who, and The Midwich Cuckoos, her prowess behind the camera proves she has outgrown the small screen. The big screen is where her future lies. Every scene is shot and framed masterfully, and every sequence is directed with such skill, that we are simply blown away. The way she handles the story, her characters, the actors, and the locations proves she has a bright future ahead of her. Even the interiors are shot in a way that brings more from the film. I defy anyone to go away without having at least one shot or scene burned into their memory for a long time afterwards.
The screenplay by Alex MacKeith keeps us guessing at every turn. Just when we think we’ve got a firm grip on what we are seeing, the rug is pulled out from under us. The way MacKeith has written the film makes it a true standout. Every character has layers of depth that we wouldn’t expect, quirks we don’t see coming. The plot also twists its way around these characters like a Boa Constrictor, squeezing every last drop of blood, sweat and tears from the actors to make the film as good as it is. That being said, however, the film isn’t nearly as clever as it thinks it is. Believe me, it is very, VERY clever. But maybe not to its full potential. But this is a minor quibble in a screenplay that has been masterfully created.
The Lesson is one of those rare films that manages to amaze, engage, and constantly surprise us. It is, without doubt, a British gem of a film. It is something that forces us to watch and think about everything we see and hear on screen. And I do mean hear every line of dialogue. This is essential. Some seemingly small snippet of speech, something we take for granted COULD come into play later in the film, making the narrative take another turn or unexpected twist. It is yet another quality that the film contains that we wouldn’t expect. It also contains some quite unexpected humour to go alongside the thriller aspects. This gives the film another glorious string to its bow.
By the time the end credits roll, we will discover the truth of it all. The question of who is teaching whom will be answered. But it is the getting there that is the most fun. Instead of rushing through things, the film takes its time, to allow us to take in everything as it comes to us. And that is what makes the film as good as it is. Not only is it a shining diamond of a film, it is quite possibly one of the best films of the year. Alice Troughton, Alex MacKeith, and the entire cast and crew have delivered a wonderful gift-wrapped present for us to open and enjoy. This is one lesson you’ll be glad to have learned.
The Lesson is distributed by Universal Pictures and Focus Features and will be in cinemas from Friday, September 22nd.
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