This is a clever reimagining of the classic noir tropes, Julie Delpy is exemplary. The Lesson is 142 mins of joyful suspense. Alex Mackeith has written a masterpiece.
Be careful who you look up to, people aren’t always who they seem. This must be one of the most basic lessons in life, but we never quite seem to learn. Beautifully written by Alex Mackeith and masterfully directed by Alice Troughton, The Lesson is a colourful noir that certainly reminds us, that where there’s Idol worship, there’s usually something or someone to be sacrificed.
Exceptional from start to finish, the film ‘steals’ from horror, psychodrama and satire genres to give the audience an immersive view of the damage the quest for success can create – sort of like rising damp, a great structure can rot and crumble at its foundations. The framing, artistry, surrealism, and score work wonderfully together to create hands down one of my favourite films of 2023 so far.
Liam, played by Daryl McCormack (Good luck to you, Peaky Blinders), is an aspiring writer who, while working on his debut novel is hired by the wife of his living literary God J.M. Sinclair, to tutor their son Bertie ensuring that he passes his Cambridge entrance exams. The wife Hélѐne, played by Academy award nominee Julia Delpy (Before Sunrise, Avengers: Age of Ultron), an art curator; carefully selected Liam to stay with the family for the sake of their son(s), knowing his admiration for her husband (his thesis is about Sinclair) thus inviting him to be a part of their world.
Despite being hired to work with Bertie, Liam finds himself coming to the aid of Sinclair, working with and being mentored by him, and in doing so uncovers the truth of who Sinclair really is and the secrets behind the death of Felix, their eldest son.
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Bafta and Academy award nominee Richard E Grant (Star Wars: The rise of Sky Walker) embodies his character of J.M. Sinclair. Sinclair is a haughty writer; he works smarter not harder. He deludes himself that as a great mentor, his feedback however critical it may seem, is for the betterment of the receiver. Richard E Grants portrayal brings some delightful comedy to what could be a quite sensitive story. His snobbery and over inflated sense of self-importance is actually amusing, causing you to both like and loathe him.
However, there’s a vulnerability to him that we see towards the end of the film – when he looks up at Hélѐne, we then understand who held all the power. Even in their passion Sinclair always services Hélѐne. His vulnerability is displayed again during the brilliant scene where he is giving Liam advice against the backdrop of Yield to the Night a 1956 noir movie. At this point Liam is no longer in awe of him, we are led to believe that he is plotting against Sinclair. Despite the fact that Sinclair and his shadow towers over a seated Liam, we know that its Sinclair that will soon be at Liams mercy and not the other way around.
Stephen Mcmillan is Bertie, a son who is spoilt, trying to prove that Liam doesn’t belong by class shaming him, echoing his father’s attitude, but you can see that in his awfulness is a child begging to be affirmed by his father and missing his older brother.
Alice cleverly placed easter eggs reveal the nature of each character before the plot unfolds. For example, the walls of Sinclair’s office are covered with photos and posters of the literary greats known for their hubris. Liam catches Sinclair stealing lines from books to add to his new novel, but Sinclair declares this in one of the first scenes, professing to being a thief, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal”.
Daryl McCormack sends chills down your spine in his first scene as Liam, the emptiness of his eyes when asked about the inspiration for his novel, act as a window to a killer’s mind. Liam swimming in the family lake before he gets the call for job, hints to the extent of his fascination with Sinclair. Is he thinking ‘if I swim in the water he has swam in, I can be as good as him’?
The otters and frogs also enjoying the lake are at first a cute pause, you reflect on the scenes like reflecting on life while walking through nature. However, by part II of the film the lake feels eerie, you wonder “what story do those waters really hold?”. And when we’re informed by Bertie that Rose Tree – Rhododendron, can’t be touched, they’re poisonous, nothing can grow around them because they strangle all that get too close, we accept this as metaphor for those who get close to Sinclair, but perhaps it relates also to Hélѐne.
Hélѐne, is introduced as rigid, calculated, and absent, a classic femme fatal. As a curator she is used to being critical, finding the right piece of artwork to convey the story she wishes to tell. When she declares “I mustn’t get sentimental” in a cold flat tone she indicates her ability to switch her feelings off and be all about getting the job done.
A beautiful part of the story telling is that you spend the whole film anticipating the confession of a murder, and you sit anticipating a murder taking place – but it doesn’t give you either. The investigation you follow comes to the conclusion that jealousy, manipulation, guilt and subsequently grief kill the soul; characters need not die at the physical hands of an individual; mental and emotional control can drown a victim with their insecurities.
By the end of the film, I felt that there were no villains, you sympathise with them all. You route for Liam – he’s brilliant and yet an underdog simply because of his socio-economic status, you understand Sinclair – all the greats had inflated ego’s – that’s how they stayed on top, and well Helene she’s a grieving mother, career woman and was a supportive wife. Even Bertie at some points has you wanting to just reach out and hug him, all he needed was love.
The duality of the characters as both villain and victim deserves first class honours. Gold star to Alex MacKeith, while the direction and acting are exceptional Alice and cast were given a special story to work with. “This isn’t about the writing” say’s Liam, “it’s only ever about the writing” retorts Sinclair, and indeed it is.