The Lessons Pits Creative Thievery Versus Comeuppance

Image courtesy of Bleecker Streeet

The Lesson opens on a prologue of our central character, author Liam Somers, played by Good Luck to You, Leo Grande discovery Daryl McCormack. The young man is sitting in a formal lecture hall interview setting not unlike the opening of Todd Field’s TÁR from last fall’s awards season. After the introductions are made, pleasantries are shared, and the applause dies down, the interviewer notes Liam’s current and first hit novel and asks him, “What drew you to tell this story?” The question gives Liam pause and a particular twinkle in his eye. 

The film cuts to a new transition and the inquiry goes unanswered. Nevertheless, eyebrows are raised as the answer to that question of Liam dangles where all of The Lesson will be exploring from there. Diving backward into a turbulent string of events, the hooks are in and screenwriter Alex MacKeith and TV-seasoned director Alice Troughton are onto something in this twisty little lark.

When we see Liam next, he’s watching the same interview program on television with a different author in the hot seat receiving the same questions. That man is J.M. Sinclair, embodied with flair and finery by Can You Ever Forgive Me? Oscar nominee Richard E. Grant. Relishing the spotlight, J.M. is also asked where his ideas come from. He coyly responds that he doesn’t know, but starts a diatribe about how many authors attempt and fail at originality and fail to reconcile that there are no new ideas.

A man looks up at a dock while swimming from The Lesson.
Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

Taken with himself in his moment of feigned wisdom and playing to the camera, J.M. Sinclair squeezes a little more sassy confidence out for the audience with this lesson’s escalating actions. He says, “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.” He’s not wrong, yet you can tell Sinclair figures that if he admits those two truths he is absolving himself from being subject to those tendencies and examinations. From this moment on and when the author storms off stage when the topic shifts to the death of his first son Felix, savvy viewers of The Lesson should prepare themselves for quite the prickly heist. Let the guessing begin!

Liam enters the Sinclair world when he is hired to tutor J.M.’s son Bertie (Stephen McMillan of Dead Shot and Boiling Point) for admission into the prestigious University of Oxford. Citing “incidents in the past with staff,” Liam’s position requires a private contract, signing a NDA for any potential intellectual property, summer residence on the Sinclair estate, and him squelching his fanboy temptations after J.M. Sinclair was the subject of his own senior thesis several years ago. The tutor enters an ambivalent household where the scar of losing a child created cracks in J.M.’s marriage to his art curator wife Helene (Before trilogy maven Julie Delpy) and unfairly heaped extra educational expectations onto Bertie.

The Lesson stays primarily on Liam Somers as he navigates this quarrelsome arrangement with a voyeuristic position and dismissed purview. When J.M. is bunkered in his study or away promoting his as-yet-incomplete next novel entitled “Rose Tree,” the teaching relationship with Bertie managed by Helene is contentious until Liam pushes the right buttons. To Sinclair, Liam comes off as unrefined before showing off his prowess for line retention and recitation. This talent causes Sinclair to add personal proofreading sessions for “Rose Tree” to the contract, with Grant shooting the zinger of “We’ll make a thief of you yet.” 

A man and woman look out a window from a studio room.
Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

Working with both father and son independently, Liam breaks a few emotional boundaries to lean on the family’s grief. Separate from the trauma and truth, he’s willing to make what’s difficult and unthinkable material for creativity. In his new position with J.M., Liam shares his own manuscript for a novel with the author, which is where the breakdowns, schemes, and spite escalate to flourish in The Lesson. 

As much as The Lesson is a showcase for the top-lined Richard E. Grant, Daryl McCormack is the true lead stirring the inky cauldron. Grant is the volatile, conceited, and frazzled spark as the senior scribe clinging to fame, but McCormack brings the upstart smoke to make it a confrontational duel of seesaw influence. Their scenes together crackle with understated exchanges of who does or does not have the upper hand. For good measure, Julie Delpy is her own lit lamp of heat and suspicion that could spread the fire in more uncontrollable ways.

When all the created entanglements and questions start to topple over in the labeled Part III of The Lesson, the calamities come to a head for a proper mystery. Smartly and economically with both budget and time in a very strong debut feature, MacKeith and Troughton avoid the gaudiness of involving other external factors like the press or police. Stepping through the stale air, playful woodwinds of Emma. composer Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score, and the skeleton-filled closets of the idyllic Sinclair property is all this film needs to squeeze nerves and keep viewers guessing where the comeuppance is coming.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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