Review: The Lesson Offers a Few Surprises in a Sharp Noir Thriller

Class warfare and family drama are at the heart of first-time feature director Alice Troughton’s The Lesson, which centers on young, aspiring writer Liam (Daryl McCormack, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande), who is hired by a rich family to tutor their son Bertie (Stephen McMillan) so that he can pass his college entrance exam to get into Harvard. It just so happens that the family is that of one of Liam’s idols, renowned author J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant), and his wife Hélène (Julie Delpy). The missing member of the family is the older brother, who committed suicide in the not-too-distant past, leaving the parents' hopes and dreams on the shoulders of Bertie, who is clearly cracking under the pressure.

Scripted economically and bitingly by Alex MacKeith, The Lesson becomes an exercise in Liam playing the casual observer just long enough to figure out the dynamics of this truly twisted family, who seem to take turns at revealing secrets, resenting each other, exploding with rage, as well as seeking some form of revenge. Being the outsider doesn’t mean Liam doesn’t get caught in the crossfire at times, but more often than not, he’s dismissed as the help. Speaking of which, the only other character in the film is a butler named Ellis (Crispin Letts), whose exact role on the estate might be the biggest mystery of all.

Sinclair hasn’t written anything since his son’s death, but he has begun something, and he begins to admire Liam’s contribution to his family’s prestige enough that he lets him read what he’s pulled together. Liam agrees to do so only if Sinclair will read a short novel he’s written as well. But after Liam offers up an assessment of Sinclair passages, the author in turn savages not just Liam’s work but his prospects of ever being a real writer. This savage bit of petty criticism kickstarts a retribution plot in Liam meant to seriously hurt the esteemed Sinclair.

Although some of the plot twists in The Lesson are somewhat predictable, that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of watching them unfold. The true power of the film is in the telling and execution of this wicked story about a group of sensitive and creative artists who need to tear each other down in order to feel better about themselves. There isn’t a weak link in this chain, but Grant seems to be having the time of his life skewering those around him, if only to be reminded that he’s still got skills with his words, even if putting pen to paper has become a struggle. Delpy is appropriately subdued, but it’s clear she’s always thinking and is likely up to something that will reveal itself in time. And it’s good to see McCormack tackle a very different, more quietly realized character than he did in Leo Grande. He oozes intelligence, but also an over-eagerness to please his hero, something that comes back to bite him in the ass and reveals his emotional immaturity, even if he is a gifted writer.

By the end, The Lesson reveals itself to be something of a sharp noir thriller, and director Troughton uses her years of British television work to piece together a worthy debut. This one snuck up on me, and I always enjoy when a film surprises me the way this one did.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.