The egos are as vast and thorny as the gardens on the lush estate of a prominent author in “ The Lesson,” an entertaining and erudite chamber piece about a master, a tutor and a family after loss.
This is a story that, in different hands, could have easily turned maudlin or melodramatic, but director Alice Troughton, writer Alex MacKeith and composer Isobel Waller-Bridge opted instead for wry lightness within the construct of a slow-burn thriller. It’s as though “The Lesson,” and everyone involved, is winking at the audience through the serious material that lingers, intentionally, on the fine line between pretentious and provocative.
Daryl McCormack, of “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” and “Bad Sisters,” plays Liam Sommers, an aspiring writer who has accepted a job tutoring the son of world-famous author J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant), who also happens to be his literary idol. But the film begins with Liam on a fancy stage, being interviewed about his novel about a fading patriarch and a grief-stricken family that the moderator calls one of the most striking debuts of the year. The movie is a memory prompted by that very standard interview question: What was your inspiration?
Anyone in the business of asking artists questions about inspiration knows, on a certain level, that at best you’re only getting a very brief version of one person’s highly sanitized truth. At worst it’s just a plausible sounding fabrication, safely constructed in the rearview mirror. J.M. Sinclair, in the YouTube interviews that Liam watches on repeat, coyly speaks about how all great writers steal but he’s not one, you imagine, who would publicly own any thievery. He is as precious about the singularity of his works and his talent as, in his words, the average writers who attempt originality and “fail universally” and the good writers who have the “sense to borrow.” But it all helps to plant the seed that you’re about to watch a literary heist unfold, though perhaps not the one you might expect.
The Sinclair family is the picture of upper-class posturing, with a household staff and a feigned formality fitting of someone who is always in control of the narrative, even at the dinner table in the company of only his son, Bertie (Stephen McMillan), and wife, Hélène (Julie Delpy). When he queues up Rachmaninoff as their dining music and Bertie protests, he challenges his son to give him three good reasons why — a snobbish test that only shuts down the conversation. It’s also quite the introduction to an author whom Liam has worshipped. Never meet your idols, etc, etc.
Liam is ostensibly there to help Bertie, a quiet and tortured Chalamet-type, prepare for entrance exams to study English literature at Oxford. But he has his own motives too — he’s writing a thesis about Sinclair and at work on his own book. Why would a family that insists on a nondisclosure agreement and utmost discretion hire someone with such a glaring conflict of interest? Well, that’s just one of the many mysteries for the audience to navigate in this maze of secrets, shame and scandals, including the somewhat recent suicide of the eldest Sinclair boy who was, it’s suggested, a more promising writer than Bertie.
McCormack, Grant and Delpy are a deliriously captivating group to watch. Grant, so adept at comedy, is prickly and terrifying as this intellectual tyrant who is unafraid to crush anyone in his path with casual cruelty, as when he asks Liam for help because he’s “not a real writer.” And McCormack once again excels at playing a shrewd, underestimated outsider. Liam has a few Tom Ripley talents up his sleeve that he uses to his advantage at key moments.
As Liam says of Sinclair’s newest book, the third act in the film feels like a bit of a jarring departure from the fun escalating tension of the first two acts. But “The Lesson” is worth a watch as a tightly crafted film made by and for adults unafraid of some rhododendron metaphors and casual Tchaikovsky talk. LINDSEY BAHR, MDT/AP Film Writer