When aspiring writer and Oxford grad Liam Sommers (Daryl McCormack) gets a call from his agency with a tutoring job with the son of Liam’s idol, J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant), he jumps at the chance to help Bertie (Stephen McMillan) pass the Oxford English Literature Admissions Test, but it is Liam who is about to learn “The Lesson.”
Laura's Review: C+
British television director Alice Troughton and screenwriter Alex MacKeith make their feature debuts with an idea developed by MacKeith from similar, albeit less dramatic, personal experience and apparently that experience was very clichéd. Despite the filmmakers’ intent to surprise us, little that happens in “The Lesson” cannot be anticipated. The chief pleasures to be found here are in the beautiful Hamburg estate found by production designer Seth Turner ("In the Fade”), its natural splendor celebrated by cinematographer Anna Patarakina, and the performance of rising star McCormack.
The film tips its hand as to Liam’s fate right from the get-go with a flashforward of him being interviewed on stage about his novel, intercut with the young man biking to a swimming hole, getting that phone call and then arriving at the Sinclair estate gates. In the near present, we see J.M. Sinclair in the same interview environment, spouting clichés like ‘A writer has no choice – he must write’ and ‘A good writer borrows, a great writer steals.’ Later we’ll see how that interview ended abruptly, commenting upon future revelations, but we will wonder how Liam is able to give his interview, let alone write that novel, when he’s asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement upon his arrival by J.M.’s French wife Hélène (Julie Delpy), who also asks that he lie to his agency about the job and contract directly with her.
Liam, who keeps trying to get the Sinclairs’ butler Ellis (Crispin Letts) to call him by his first name, is welcomed like someone in between servant and guest, Hélène direct, but chilly; Bert both acquiescent and flippant (upon learning his tutor can recite any literary passage given its first few words, he replies ‘So you have a party trick…’); J.M. testing him during his first dinner by asking for his thoughts on Rachmaninoff (Liam is unfamiliar). But Liam is familiar with many literary works and will begin noticing the words of other authors in his thesis subject’s printouts (J.M. replies ‘good spot’ when he recites them).
Walking the beautiful grounds, Liam will learn about rhododendrons from Bert, who tells him they are poisonous, how nothing can grow near them because of their invasive root systems, that they were called the ‘rose tree’ by ancient Greeks and that his older brother Felix was fascinated by them. Then Liam, who’s ingratiated himself to Bert’s dad by fixing his printer, is invited to review J.M.’s novel and his comments, along with J.M.’s aversion to Liam’s suggestion he shut down a supposedly inactive server, blow open a big, dark secret.
According to the press notes, Troughton had a specific personality in mind for Liam, one which McCormack fails to project by keeping Liam likable, yet it is his probing performance that keeps us engaged. Grant is fine as the insecure narcissist who sacrifices his sons on the altar of his own ego, but his character is all too easy to read and Delpy is too clinical to care about despite Troughton’s objective. McMillan is the film’s MacGuffin, a plot driver who disappears when no longer needed. Letts adds atmosphere.
That estate, with its birds eye view from Liam’s room in the main house to J.M.’s writing cottage and its fateful pond inhabited by a water vole, is a character unto itself. Composer Isobel Waller-Bridge's ("Emma") waltz score adds a jaunty aspect to the proceedings which, oddly, works.
“The Lesson” is a mystery of manipulation, but the revelation of its secrets and its puppeteer may be its least interesting aspect.
Robin's Review: C
First-time novelist Liam (Daryl McCormack) accepts a tutoring position for Bertie (Stephen McMillan), the son of a famous writer, J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant). and his wife, Helene (Julie Delpy). His job is to ensure the recalcitrant student secures a spot into a prestigious college in “The Lesson.”
Alice Troughton makes the transition from TV helmer to feature film director with an odd little tale of a young writer who wants to be near the famous Sinclair and pick his brain to become a better writer. The experience will do what he wants but not in the way Liam expects.
From the start of his relationship with the Sinclair family, Liam is operating at a disadvantage. The man he saw as his mentor, it turns out, is not. And, the more we learn about Sinclair colors our opinion of the man. He is not the intellectual giant he has presented to the world.
Delpy plays Helene as the single-minded puppetmaster of the family who will get what she wants for her precious son. The dynamics within the Sinclair family ebb and flow and our opinions shift as we see who rules the throne. Guess who it is not?
One key factor to the flow “The Lesson” is how the Sinclair family’s very existence lives under the shroud of the dead eldest son, Felix, a victim of suicide for reasons that come out slowly. Liam is the detective who uncovers the secrets as things reach their logical conclusion. The result is a mixed bag.
Bleecker Street opens "The Lesson" in theaters on 7/7/23.