The Lesson
Photograph: Gordon Timpen
  • Film
  • Recommended


The Lesson

3 out of 5 stars

Richard E Grant and Julie Delpy head up a low-key literary thriller that doesn’t leap off the page

Dan Jolin

Time Out says

‘Good writers have the sense to borrow from their betters,’ says Richard E. Grant, as a fêted but fading author, early on in The Lesson. ‘Great writers steal.” It’s a recurring line – stolen, with a wink, from T S Eliot – that positions this crisp chamber piece among the likes of The Hoax and Can You Ever Forgive Me? in a slender but intriguing thriller subgenre: the literary heist movie.

English lit postgrad Liam (Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’s Daryl McCormack) has landed what appears to be a plum summer tutoring gig, teaching the younger son of his favourite novelist, the now reclusive JM Sinclair (Grant), at their secluded manor house. Liam has his own writing ambitions, and gradually earns the attention (if not the respect) of his idol – rendered prickly and frostily aloof by Grant – while also gaining the affection of his art-curating wife (Julie Delpy). However, the suicide of the Sinclair’s oldest son remains a cloud over the household which, as framed by first-time feature director Alice Troughton (Doctor Who), seems bleached by grief – brittle and sterile.

Together with screenwriter Alex MacKeith (another debutant), Troughton makes her film a study of discomfort, where conversations stutter awkwardly and passive-aggression courses beneath the surface of every interaction. As such, despite its thorough classiness and pristine presentation, it is not a film you can really warm to – much like its characters. 

Despite its classiness, it’s not a film you can really warm to

Liam should be the solution to this, but for some reason McCormack plays him as a bit of a blank; clearly clever (he has a preposterously good memory) and attractive, but lacking in charm or empathy. And while the Sinclairs are intentionally difficult and odd, in a way that we’ve perhaps lazily come to expect of the English rich, they contribute to an overwhelming sense of remoteness. Not simply from the world at large (the film rarely leaves their manicured grounds), but from any kind of relatability. Nobody here watches the telly, or uses a smartphone, or listens to music composed in the last 80 years. It leaves the film feeling like it’s lacking some vital texture – those little unexpected details that give characters life.

Even so, its noirish tendencies keep the film’s pulse strong, especially Delpy’s simmering performance as a matriarchal femme-fatale-of-sorts, whose presence as Sinclair’s muse isn’t entirely what it seems. And you can always rely on Grant to liven things up, which he eventually does in a final act that allows him a hot flash of the old Withnail, before things turn frigid again.

In UK cinemas Sep 22.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Alice Troughton
  • Screenwriter:Alex MacKeith
  • Cast:
    • Stephen McMillan
    • Richard E Grant
    • Julie Delpy
    • Daryl McCormack
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