Richard E. Grant, Julie Delpy and Daryl McCormack dance a complex triangle of power, sex and literature as a young tutor enters the sanctum of a famous novelist.
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“The Lesson” is a film of intrigue involving power, sex and… literature.
Usually “money” is the last word you’d expect in that string, as it’s often closely involved with the others. Especially in this type of moviemaking, which is about a group of people striving to have the upper hand over the others. But as it’s about writers — surely the most miserable lot of all humankind — wordsmithing is the weapon at hand.
It’s a decently engrossing picture whose two main characters are well drawn and compelling, though another pair who should be more important to the story seem stubbornly stuck in the background, except when it’s necessary for the plot.
I’d say screenwriter Alex MacKeith, a novice, and director Alice Troughton, a TV veteran also making her feature film debut, could’ve benefited from a few more spins through the rewrite cycle. Still, if movies were books this qualifies as a page-turner that will never leave you bored.
Richard E. Grant plays J.M. Sinclair, a celebrated British novelist who’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning. It’s been five years since he last published a book, which is merely a burp for someone like George R.R. Martin — 12 years and counting, George! — but an eternity for most writers. The unspoken weight of this barren period hangs over him, his reputation and his family.
Liam Sommers (Daryl McCormack) is a promising young scholar who’s hired by Sinclair and his French wife, Hélène (Julie Delpy), to tutor their son, Bertie (Stephen McMillan), who’s trying to get into the literature program at Oxford. He’s a bright kid but clearly weighed down by having a famous writer for a father, so his commitment to study needs a hand.
He’s also quite the little pill, constantly denigrating Liam and treating him like the help. Little cutting remarks and double entendre insults flow from the teenager like water.
Liam, for his part, seems unfazed by the task or his famous client. It soon becomes evident that he is an aspiring novelist himself, and has been working on his debut for sometime, “Tower 24,” which he writes out longhand(!) in a leather-bound book. You don’t have to be an expert in plot development to guess that 1) Liam is hoping to obtain Mr. Sinclair’s support to publish his own book, and 2) words written on paper with no backup is a risky endeavor.
The Sinclairs bring Liam out to their handsome, sprawling estate in the country, where he’s put up in a guest wing with a perfect view of Mr. Sinclair’s study so he can watch him typing away and doing… other things. It appears the elder writer is finally wrapping up work on his latest book.
Mr. Sinclair is an endless repository of arrogance and privilege, treating all others as actors who have been cast to suit the whims of the star, himself. About a year ago, his elder son, Felix, drowned himself in the pond in front of the mansion, which looks pleasant enough but really is more of a swamp harboring voles and other sorts of nasty denizens.
Hélène is quite the piece of work herself. An art collector, she seems very serene most of the time, but years of being treated by her husband as a helpful muse have clearly sapped her of any zest for the relationship. She oversees the running of the house, ordering the staff about and taking care of Mr. Sinclair’s business affairs. We sense she’s actually the cagier of the two.
The lessons go apace and gradually Bertie’s resentment lessens. Liam nurtures the boy’s resentment toward his father, partially because it benefits his own ends but also because he thinks Bertie can’t grow unless he throws off the weight of his father and dead brother.
Liam’s hopes come true and he also begins to ingratiate himself with Mr. Sinclair — including becoming involved in his book project, “The Rose Tree,” named after the rhododendron dotting the estate that were a favorite of Felix. Lovely, but poisonous.
One of Mr. Sinclair’s most famous utterances is his insistence that only bad writers try to be original, since he believes there are no new stories to tell. “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.” Liam has all the makings of a master thief, helped by an infallible memory for strings of words.
It’s a terrific part for Grant and he gnashes into it with obvious relish. Corrupted authority figures have become his sweet spot as he’s gotten older. His Sinclair is a devilishly charismatic figure, but also a hopelessly deluded one.
McCormack makes a mark of his own as the mysterious young man of little means looking to edge his way into the high society of literary publishing. He’s less obviously awful than Sinclair, but makes no excuses for his mercenary bent. Keep your eye on this one.
I wish Bertie and Hélène were incorporated on a more equal footing into the story. The best scenes are dinners where the foursome each act upon their own goals and desires, tasty little battles of words that sting. But the last half of the movie becomes a pas de deux contest between Sinclair and Liam that, while it has its own merits, just isn’t as interesting.
Sinclair’s writing problem in the movie is that he can’t finish the ending of his book in a satisfying way. The middle’s more the problem for “The Lesson,” with a strong opening and finale that punctuate the contest of wills between these deeply unhappy people. Writers, remember?