Renowned author J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant) gives his protégé Liam (Daryl McCormack) a lesson. The elder author advises the younger scribe that “good writers borrow” and “great writers steal.” What Sinclair omits from the lesson, however, is the fact that originality often proves more satisfying than familiarity. Movies these days are all about stealing and rinse-and-repeat thievery: just look at the glut of superhero movies clogging the box office. Then look at their numbers. As much as audiences may enjoy nostalgia’s easy sell, they can spot a grift. As for literature, there’s nothing especially rewarding about reading a forgettable book that one may have actually read before.
This logic both undermines and then redeems The Lesson. This cinematic page-turner borrows from other literary flicks, like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Misery, but then offers two twists—one predictable, one completely unexpected—that accentuate the battle of wits that fuels the film. It’s a beach read packaged as high literature, providing an engaging if quickly forgettable escape.
After a Tár-ish preamble that sees Liam in a master class receiving a question about the inspiration for his new novel, The Lesson jumps back in time to the recent past. Liam, a grad student, is off to Oxford. He has a job tutoring the son of his idol and thesis subject, J.M. Sinclair. It’s an easy enough job. He edits the work of Sinclair’s son, Bertie (Stephen McMillan), who knows he’ll always live in his father’s shadow. Liam, of course, barely hides that the gig isn’t his motivation. He’s obviously there for easy access to the literary giant who inspires his own work.
Liam, Meet Rebecca
As soon as Liam sets foot on the Sinclairs’ property, though, it’s clear that this is no ordinary assignment. A butler greets him and brings him to a guest house. There, Liam preps Bertie’s lessons and tutors him outdoors by the property’s little lake. The hosts permit Liam to enter the big house for supper, but the family dinners prove tense. Sinclair always struts in last and assumes command at the head of the table. He always gets to choose the music—always classical—and his family begrudgingly munches on. (Liam falls flat while trying to impress Sinclair with his knowledge of Rachmaninoff, rhyming all of his biography with no opinion of his music.) Sinclair’s wife Hélène (Julie Delpy) offers cutting glances at her husband over the decanter.
Theirs is a cold marriage, underscored by the death of their son Felix two years earlier. He haunts the film as a sort of Rebecca figure. Liam, naturally, is a regular Second Mrs. De Winter. The script even throws a nod to Daphne Du Maurier’s haunting page-turning by name-checking the rhododendrons that were Rebecca’s, and it seems, Hélène’s, pride.
As Liam learns about Sinclair’s work and the family secrets, it becomes apparent that Felix is more than a source of pain. He’s a point of tension between J.M. and Hélène, particularly as concerns the author’s writing. As new proposals arise for Liam, though, he can’t help but take advantage of the insight into Sinclair’s mind, and the potential influence he could have on his career. Liam also seems to enjoy his mentor’s nightly ritual of performing cunnilingus on Hélène right in front of their open window that sits opposite the tutor’s desk. Rear Window, eat your, er, heart out.
A Tête-à-tête of Fragile Egos
There are a few clichés here, along with some lethargic plotting that makes developments rather predictable. Any film that tackles writing needs its script to be airtight. While The Lesson has some great characters and thematic intrigue, it plods a little—a thriller that never really thrills. Director Alice Troughton keeps it moody, favouring the mind game between Liam and Sinclair with some random cutaways to animals on the property. Luckily, though, actors can interpret scripts and the stars have lots to work with here. Grant clearly relishes this role that allows him to embrace a dark side once Liam gives Sinclair tough love about his draft. His take on the celebrated writer is the epitome of the entitled white male. Sinclair enjoys his privilege and social status, and Grant plays him with a layer of coolness, poise, and primness that can turn on a dime.
Meanwhile, McCormack delivers on the promise of his breakthrough in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. Where buttering up Emma Thompson showed that he could be intensely intimate and vulnerable as a romantic lead, The Lesson lets him display a tougher edge as a leading man.
The Lesson somewhat keeps Delpy in the wings, though. Delpy masters the art of the resting bitch face as Hélène mopes around the house in sourpuss mode, but she anchors key dramatic turns. Her scene-stealing performance guides The Lesson to its surprising finale that asks audiences about the ethics of “stealing” in service of good storytelling. It’s fitting that a study of problematic men saves some juicy bits for the lone woman in the cast. The Lesson saves an inspired original stroke for the end that reminds audiences that the art, not the artist, will be remembered. Like a book that’s a bit of a slog, there’s enough to merit sticking through to the final page.
The Lesson opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox.