REVIEW: The Lesson (2023, dir. Alice Troughton)

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 103 mins

UK Distributor: Universal Pictures

UK Release Date: 22 September 2023

WHO’S IN THE LESSON?

Richard E. Grant, Julie Delpy, Daryl McCormack, Stephen McMillan, Crispin Letts

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Alice Troughton (director), Alex MacKeith (writer), Camille Gatin, Cassandra Sigsgaard, Judy Tossell and Fabien Westerhoff (producers), Isobel Waller-Bridge (composer), Anna Patarakina (cinematographer), Paulo Pandolpho (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A young writer (McCormack) becomes involved in the dark family life of a prolific author (Grant)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE LESSON?

“Good writers borrow, great writers steal” is the motto of J.M. Sinclair, the sneering and snobbish writer at the centre of director Alice Troughton’s The Lesson, as played by the ever-reliable Richard E. Grant. The irony is, though, that while the film treats the saying as a unique and daring mantra, it is just one of many conventional stock sayings that most writers tend to spew in an attempt to sound smarter than they perhaps are.

It is also something that can be said about the film itself, for as well-made and initially intriguing as it is, The Lesson piggybacks heavily on several familiar storytelling conventions to tell its increasingly convoluted tale, which again lacks the fundamental core that it needs in order for most of them to work.

While Sinclair is certainly the most significant character in this film, the perspective belongs to Liam (Daryl McCormack), an aspiring young writer who is offered a job as the private tutor of Sinclair’s sullen young son Bertie (Stephen McMillan). After arriving to stay at the Sinclair family’s secluded estate, where he also meets Sinclair’s art curator wife Hélène (Julie Delpy), Liam quickly picks up on the solemn and withdrawn family dynamic; they are still mourning the loss of their other son Felix, while the renowned writer has effectively holed himself up in his office to work on his new book, neglecting the emotional needs of his wife and remaining son. Liam initially senses an opportunity to get in with his literary idol as he struggles with his latest masterpiece, but he eventually becomes entangled within the complex family, discovering some shocking secrets that leave him in a rather vulnerable position.

The thing about The Lesson is that it’s one of those films about writers where the weakest element is, funnily enough, the writing. As you may have guessed, there are a handful of twists just waiting to be unveiled as Troughton and screenwriter Alex MacKeith slowly pull apart the curtains, a couple of inches at a time. Most of them, however, are fairly easy to predict, because there is a staggering straightforwardness to the storytelling that makes it obvious whenever someone has something to hide, in addition to what exactly they may be hiding. MacKeith’s script isn’t exactly deep or even that complex, with many of the characters filling most of the regular archetypes you’d expect from a film like this, and often act sinister or off-putting just because the script commands them to, such as a couple of instances where Delpy’s Hélène creepily stares at McCormack’s Liam through the window as she’s receiving pleasure; an effective shot, but in the context of the rest of the narrative doesn’t make much sense. When the film does eventually reveal its numerous hands, it’s past a point where it genuinely feels unexpected, because by then you’ll most likely have figured most of it out.

Troughton, meanwhile, fares better as she turns the flawed material into a handsome-looking production, with a style that intentionally emulates the far-reaching pomposity of certain writers. The director bookends the film, separated into three parts, with both a prologue and epilogue that amusingly feels like the kind you’d find in a book by a writer desperately trying to find clever ways to have the narrative come full circle. The director also takes much of MacKeith’s descriptive dialogue and appears to have her actors deliver it in a way where, again, it sounds like a high-brow author attempting to provide naturalistic dialogue that only ends up feeling much more unnatural. There is certainly a playfulness on Troughton’s part, to where you can tell she is aiming for something sharp and satirical in the same vein as Woody Allen (there is even a repetitive piece of music that plays throughout, as often does in one of Allen’s films), while Anna Patarakina’s cinematography manages to sneak in some pleasant shots around this modernly gothic estate.

Going back to how unnaturally the dialogue is conceived and executed, it benefits Troughton that she’s cast actors who are more than up for fitting well into her subtle style. Grant, as ever, is a tremendous screen presence and relishes in playing the latest sneering antagonist of his vibrant career, while Delpy, McCormack and McMillan have plenty of strong moments of their own as they each content with this man’s blistering ego. Their performances are compelling enough to even make some of the rather confusing later reveals much more satisfying than they very much are, because you can tell that they are providing all the necessary layers that the script just isn’t giving them off the bat.

On the surface, The Lesson is a handsome and cheeky poke at the pomposity surrounding certain well-respected writers of a higher class, but the deeper you dig into its own methods of storytelling, you’ll find that it’s a shallow grave that it’s built upon. Perhaps this film could have used a bit more borrowing of stronger themes, rather than stealing ideas from much cleverer sources.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Lesson is a handsomely made thriller with a slightly cheeky style by director Alice Troughton, and a collection of sharp performances from the likes of Richard E. Grant and Julie Delpy, but a script that thinks it’s cleverer than it is leaves the film less satisfying as a whole.

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