While adaptations of novels often serve as the basis of films, there are also many occasions where a writer themselves, whether real or fictional, has been the subject of a film. While the act of writing does not immediately spring to mind as an especially interesting thing to watch unfold, the psyches of these creators and the drama associated with their work can often lead to a fascinating filmic character study. The Lesson, from director Alice Troughton and screenwriter Alex MacKeith is a film about three writers. But while the work of these characters centers the story, its real purpose is feeding the plot of a rather clever light psychological thriller.
Liam Sommers (Daryl McCormack) begins the film on a stage in conversation with an interviewer. He is asked about his bestselling debut novel. But before he can answer, the film cuts to the story proper. We now see Liam preparing to take a swim, and then taking a phone call from the agency he works for. He is offered a job as a live-in tutor, preparing Bertie Sinclair (Stephen McMillan) for his entrance exams and interview at Oxford. Bertie is the son of famed novelist J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant), who is also the subject of Liam’s graduate thesis. Wishing to be close to his literary idol, Liam jumps at the opportunity. Helene (Julie Delpy), Bertie’s mother and an artist in her own right, soon offers to hire Liam away from the agency, to allow him to focus all of his attention on Bertie, who she says “must” get into Oxford. Bertie is initially reluctant to take help, and even tries to embarrass Liam in front of his father by revealing the manuscript of Liam’s novel.
However, Liam proves patient, intelligent, encouraging, and caring enough to win Bertie’s respect and best efforts. Liam’s “parlor trick” of an eidetic memory for anything he has read previously also impresses Bertie. Liam proves himself helpful to J.M. as well, assisting the older writer with some technology problems. Sinclair states that he wants to have Liam around as a distraction, and that he hasn’t been the first to serve in such a role. The two become friendly enough that they agree to trade manuscripts. Around this time, Liam also finds out more about the Sinclair’s other son Felix, who had committed suicide two years earlier. The young man had been an accomplished pianist and aspiring writer of short stories. When Liam tells Sinclair that much of his new book feels fresh and new, but that the ending doesn’t seem to belong, the older man becomes cruel, telling Liam that his novel is “airport trash” and not worth the time Liam spent writing it, or that Sinclair spent reading it. Here the story begins its thriller plot in earnest, building on earlier plot points to twist and turn itself to the end.
This is the first feature film screenplay for MacKeith, and it is an excellent debut. The script does enough in the early going to establish interesting characters and an intriguing family drama so that when the film turns thriller, it is all the more engaging. Partway through this back half of the film, I started to feel a bit disappointed that certain elements were predictable, only to have the rug pulled out from under me in stunning fashion. The film remains relatively quiet throughout, with no plot elements reaching to the ludicrous. It is a smaller story that seems satisfied to be just that. The score, from Isobel Waller-Bridge, is contemporary classical, and fits the tone of the film. Director Alice Troughton has worked steadily in television in England, but like MacKeith, this is also her feature film debut. She does very solid work here. Her shot composition is well done, the film looks great, and she gets terrific performances from her cast.
And that cast is one of the great strengths of the film. Richard E. Grant is spectacular as J.M Sinclair, a petty egotist turned monstrous by grief. Watching his demeanor change in the scene where he and Liam are sharing feedback on their respective novels is masterful work. Daryl McCormack, so good in the title role in last year’s Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, is similarly superb here. McCormack’s Liam believes in himself, and while momentarily shaken by Sinclair’s dismissal of his work, is willing to go to dark places when he finds that he has been wronged. Julie Delpy’s performance is an intriguing one. For much of the film she feels underutilized, stuck in a quiet grieving mother role, serving the interests of her son, husband, and this new entrant into their home. But when given a late opportunity to shine, she grasps it and completely pulls the film’s focus to herself. One of the limited complaints I have with The Lesson is that it doesn’t end on a perfect shot of Delpy which appears in the final moments of the film.
The Lesson is a small, but very well-made film. Its thriller elements are perfectly integrated and never feel outlandish. For adult audiences looking for an intelligent drama with a little something extra at the multiplex, this one is well worth seeking out.
The Lesson opens in theaters on July 7