A Literary Noir Set at a Posh Country Estate, the Looks of ‘The Lesson’ Are Deceiving

The film’s central mysteries center around who steals from whom and who teaches whom a lesson.

Anna Patarakina, Courtesy of Bleecker Street
Richard E. Grant in Bleecker Street's 'The Lesson.' Anna Patarakina, Courtesy of Bleecker Street

Alice Troughton, a veteran TV director who worked on “Doctor Who,” characterizes her feature debut, “The Lesson,” as a noir. Although the film does indeed embody many tropes of the genre, its looks are decidedly deceiving. 

It takes place mostly at the posh country estate of esteemed novelist J. M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant), a milieu seemingly lifted from some Merchant-Ivory production. The visuals and tone don’t register as at all gritty or sinister. 

The film also foreshadows liberally during its prologue, to the point that it takes some suspense out of the proceedings. Nevertheless, it is every bit as absorbing and pitch black as film noir gets. 

In the prologue, we see Liam (Daryl McCormack) discussing his auspicious novel onstage in a public talk. The narrative then jumps all the way back to his pre-fame days, with a framed photo of Sinclair on the wall of his modest study. 

Liam watches on YouTube a discussion with Sinclair — one identical to that in which Liam himself partakes at the outset — during which the literary giant proclaims that there are no new ideas — good writers borrow; great writers steal. The film’s central mysteries, then, must be who steals from whom and who teaches whom a lesson. 

The main part commences with Liam reporting for duty as a private English tutor for young Bertie (Stephen McMillan), who seems standoffish and in need of an attitude adjustment. His mother, Hélène (Julie Delpy), mentions offhand that the previous tutor did not last long. 

Liam remains undeterred because, as you’ve probably guessed, this is Sinclair’s home. Hélène stipulates strict rules on guarding the family’s privacy, complete with a nondisclosure agreement. That however does not stop Liam from constantly looking for an entrée to worm his way to his idol. 

At night, the aspiring novelist peeps in on the veteran in his study either typing fervently or sleeping with Hélène. While Liam’s obsessive stalker-esque behavior is alarming, it soon becomes apparent that something more unscrupulous is afoot in the Sinclair household when Liam is offered clothes that belonged to the family’s dead older son. 

Mr. McCormack, who gave a star-making turn opposite Emma Thompson in last year’s “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” delivers another luminous performance. Like Leo Grand, Liam is a charmer who emits an air of sophistication appropriate for a student of literature. 

Yet here he also projects the disarming zest of an eager pleaser that might just make him the perfect fall guy for a shrewd femme fatale. He walks the tightrope between coming across as invasive and simply being extra. 

Mr. Grant’s performance is masterfully nuanced, leaving enough ambiguity as to whether Sinclair’s volatile temperament is that of a formidable father figure holding others to impossible standards or an insecure hack lashing out at those displaying any signs of talent and promise. Despite Sinclair’s disposition to mood swings, Mr. Grant makes the character cohesive and believable. 

Screenwriter Alex MacKeith told the audience at the film’s Tribeca Festival world premiere that he drew on his own experience as a private tutor. The film is spot on in its depiction of Liam trying to find his feet in a social setting ordinarily beyond his reach. 

Even though the ample foreshadowing makes the film slightly predictable, the excellent cast keeps viewers guessing. Though some of the integral supporting characters, such as Hélène and the butler played by Crispin Letts, seem a bit underwritten. 

Ms. Troughton’s impressively assured direction keeps the film at a tight pace. There’s nary a dull moment. More could be done to help maximize the suspenseful atmosphere, but that’s getting a bit nitpicky. “The Lesson” is a neat little chamber piece that will have you looking forward to what the many talents involved might do next. 

The New York Sun

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