In some of their best roles to date, The Lesson stars Richard E Grant, Darryl McCormack and Julie Delpy as a renowned author (Grant), his wife the innovative painter (Delpy) and an esteemed English tutor named Liam (Darryl McCormack). The story begins when Liam, fresh off his masters at Oxford in English, takes a prestigious station to tutor the son of the illustrious and wealthy author, J.M Sinclair as he preps his entrance papers for a highly sought after English program. As soon as Liam arrives at the house and meets with J.M’s wife, Helene, things seem off. Though the renowned and famed author has not published a work in many years, Liam is let into Sinclair’s private world. Here, as his lessons with his son and the relationship between him and Helene constantly evolve, more secrets are revealed about why the family lives such a secluded life. Liam soon suspects the worst about this family and the ever-evolving tension within their family home begins to come to a head.
Because the film is about writers, it should be immediately appealing to those who are interested in the vocation. Lesson often has a very pretentious sense about itself because of its characters, wealthy artists and academics who’ve talked about culture with the most sophisticated members of modern British society. Yet, unlike a movie like Tar, The Lesson never fails to make the hidden meaning and subtext apparent to the viewer, without giving much away. And this is a film that definitely works best when you don’t know anything about it beforehand. (So, be warned as you read on.)
The film explores many themes around who holds the power in literature. Often, it’s the writer because it’s their work and, as J.M Sinclair is famous for saying, “the best writers steal”. It’s this mindset that seems to plague all three writers in the house and also begins to affect Helene. We see the writer’s life shown in stark detail and the writing uses those moments to add to the story. Moments of intrigue come as Liam observes J.M’s writing methods, his drinking, his long nights at the computer and his reliance upon it.
The power dynamics within the film are some of the most interesting parts of it. At first, it seems as though J.M is in control as the head of the family and someone who provides the wealth that they enjoy so much. However, the family and Liam quickly make plays for power over the relationships between them and the literature that seems to tie them together. The writing is able to communicate very subtly what each character wants and builds that very well in the first two acts and pays off really well going into the third.
One of my favorite non-existent categories for films in 2023 are those that are basically well-written plays that happen to be filmed with great actors, and this is one of them. Like Past Lives, Asteroid City and The Artifice Girl, The Lesson is able to build tension really well, keeping enough intriguing bits afloat until it blows your mind in the end. I haven’t felt this way since Parasite where a subtle but effective twist completely changed the film for me.
All the acting is brilliant. Richard E. Grant gets to go over-the-top in a way that was really entertaining but still pretty human. Darryl McCormark is pitch perfect. He fits the role really well and is an effective screen presence who guides us into the world of the Sinclair family. Julie Delpy is also a chameleon in this role, making you forget that you know it’s her in the best ways.
The film’s technical aspects are more subtle with a spacious set that allows for good moments but the director does a great job serving the writing, never calling attention to itself in unnecessary ways that take away from the naturally effective drama. At times, it feels a bit too much like a play that just made more sense to film but I really recommend it to anyone .
The Lesson is available in theatres on Friday, July 7th, 2023.