The Lesson

Richard E. Grant deserves an Oscar nomination for The Lesson. The film is a devious little thriller, and his performance is beyond perfect. He plays J.M. Sinclair, a famous novelist who is past his prime, yet slaving away on what he believes will be his next masterpiece. Sinclair is not the main character, though. That would be Liam Sommers (Daryl McCormack), an aspiring writer he hires to tutor his son Bertie (Stephen McMillan). Liam is a huge admirer, so the opportunity to be in the presence of one of his biggest influences is a dream come true.

What happens next must not be revealed in too much detail. Through his dealings with the often-condescending Sinclair and his chilly wife Helene (Julie Delpy), Liam comes to realize the family is carrying around a dark secret. Sinclair’s favorite quote is “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” That’s where the devious part comes in. Here are two writers, one on his way up, the other on his way down. Being in each other’s orbit creates an opportunity to put that concept to the test. You may think you know what happens from that description. I promise you’re wrong.

Director Alice Troughton makes a stunning feature debut. She focuses on the interactions between the characters, but more specifically on what is unsaid between them. That creates a form of tension. Everyone has an ulterior motive, or develops one during the course of the story. We sit there trying to figure out what each person’s angle is. Alex MacKeith’s tight screenplay is packed with twists where the characters betray each other. Every single revelation and development adds to the suspense, particularly once we realize how troubling the situation truly is. Most intriguingly, who we empathize with shifts at different points. Nobody is all good or all bad. The dysfunction of the scenario reveals that.

Daryl McCormack follows up his excellent work in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande with another fine turn as Liam. His acting is impressively internal, allowing us to see the wheels spinning in the young writer’s mind, even when he’s not speaking. Delpy is equally good, showing the manner in which Helene’s icy exterior masks a reservoir of anger. Her scenes with McCormack are particularly interesting because Helene is alternately curt with Liam and sympathetic toward him.

Richard E. Grant gives the pivotal performance. He starts off expertly embodying the narcissistic writer, then begins peeling back the layers. First, he shows us Sinclair’s insecurity, then his desperation, his malice, his deepest inner pain, and, finally, his depression. Our opinion of the man is much different at the end of the movie than it is at the beginning. Best of all, Grant doesn’t ask us to like Sinclair. The actor never shies away from making him pathetic when need be. I got chills from the last shot Grant appears in.

The Lesson is fundamentally about selfishness and how people can convince themselves to do bad things by compartmentalizing their feelings. They tell themselves egocentric acts are justified. Nobody emerges from the story unscathed. We get to savor their self-inflicted misery in this intelligent, gripping, psychologically astute film.

out of four

The Lesson is rated R for language and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.