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The Lesson: Film Review

The Lesson is a diverting, fun thriller that leans too lightly on the campy schlock needed to elevate it.

In a postmodern world, there is no such thing as originality. We, as a society, are stagnant, stuck in a perpetual reimagining of the same stories. “There are no new ideas,” charmingly snarls from the lips of revered writer J.M Sinclair (Richard E. Grant) as Alice Troughton’s The Lesson, a playful and sardonic take on authorship and the subsequent scarcity of originality, uses this to form its thematic backbone.

Aspiring writer and apparent savant Liam (Daryl McCormack) takes on a tutoring role helping young and spoiled literary scholar Bertie (Stephen McMillan) pass the Oxford English Literature Admissions Test. Liam, invited by Sinclair and wife Hélène (Julie Delpy) to stay with the family on their grand, isolated estate as a live-in tutor, is eager to impress. Liam’s own writings had not only been inspired by Sinclair’s, but his graduating thesis was based on his writings. But idolisation swiftly poisons the wellspring of originality as power dynamics shift and swirl like a rainbow on an oil slick in a thriller that acts more like a faded silhouette of the sexually charged thrillers that inspire it rather than a corporeal manifestation.

Nonchalantly spouting “great writers steal” in an interview like a televangelist who has recited this a thousand times over to swiftly swerve away from audience derision, Sinclair revels in the admiration. Played by an icily wicked Richard E. Grant, his snappy repartee is subtly coded with a Jordan Peterson like demeanor as his words, laced with micro-aggressions, threaten to attack from the curl of pursed lips. Writer Alex MacKeith’s script sounds less clunky when exiting the brilliant mouths of Grant, Delpy and McCormack, the latter of which gets to spit out a fantastically awful line concerning Hélène that feels sure to become memed in the coming months.

While MacKeith’s script is performed snappily, it’s far too melodramatic for the thrilling escape that it tempts with. An entertaining score from Isobel Waller-Bridge starts to form an atmosphere but remarkably manages to provide diminishing returns on the thrills as the violin strings and piano tinkles become so uncouth that the film turns blackly comic. All well and good having these schlocky beats, but the sultry tone third-act revelations have nowhere to go but be dry, regurgitations of the plot demanding the characters learn what every other character has found out. 

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Daryl McCormack in Bleecker Street’s The Lesson (Anna Patarakina, Courtesy of Bleecker Street)

The ‘Part Three’ of The Lesson – the film is segmented into a Prologue, three acts and an Epilogue – takes wild detours that are less interested in congealing with the rest of the picture. This might work with a defter hand since there’s an attempt in deconstructing the writer’s own structure by ironically referencing that the ‘Rose Tree’ novel at the centre of the film has a poor third act, but otherwise lands flat. The film leans less on the satirical nature that this deconstruction brings and more that it is expecting us to take the third act at both face value and at the behest of a potentially unreliable narrator. 

Troughton gets a lot of atmospheric intrigue out of her single setting. The home of the Sinclair family is drab and suffocatingly quiet, the sounds of ice swirling a scotch glass, the pour of a carafe and a scribbling pen the few sounds that echo round the halls of this chamber piece. The grief of their son Felix’s suicide reverberates through the characters of Hélène and Sinclair, the latter exiting an interview when Felix’s suicide is probed by the moderator. The death of Felix causes a grief to consistently ripple through each family member, as they have never quite mourned their loss. Hélène, her frosty disposition not dissimilar to Sinclairs, is the conniving matriarch on hand with an NDA and a few desire to see the angsty Bertie succeed, just like his brother, at any cost. Bertie’s conflict arises through a much deeper form of imposter syndrome. His feet don’t quite fit the boots of Felix before him. The embers of grief are stoked by Liam’s probing, of which flit through each relationship he creates in the film, causing dark secrets kept hidden to slowly unfurl. 

While it doesn’t go far enough on being the kind of alluringly schlocky thriller that would be much more gratifying, The Lesson is still silly entertainment. Bolstered -saved, perhaps- by incredible performances who chew up a script that needed a little silly camp to turn this into something more than a diverting, half-watched late night thriller stuck in the 1am slot on terrestrial TV. 

The Lesson was released in US theaters on July 7, 2023 and will be out in UK cinemas on September 22.

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