Film Review: “The Lesson” — The Tutor, the Writer, His Wife, and Her Son
By Peg Aloi
The Lesson is well crafted, infused with nervy suspense and an almost Gothic sense of unease.
The Lesson, directed by Alice Troughton. Screening AMC Boston Common 19 and Kendall Square Cinema.
Films about famous writers tend to imbue their subject with a sense of mystery, often romanticizing their flaws. In The Lesson, directed by Alice Troughton from a screenplay by Alex MacKeith (feature debuts for both), a celebrated novelist, known for his ego as much as for his talent, makes a literary comeback after a family tragedy seems to have put his writing career on hold. The inimitable Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) plays J. M. Sinclair, who lives in a grand English country home with his wife Hélène (Julie Delpy, of the Before Sunset trilogy, and Wiener Dog) and his son Bertie (Boiling Point’s Stephen McMillan). The film’s short prologue features a public event where a young author is being interviewed about the source material for his debut novel. The writer, Liam Somers (Daryl McCormack of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande), flashes a cryptic smile at the interviewer ‘s question, and the film immediately segues into a long flashback of events some years earlier.
Liam, a struggling writer in London, works for a temp agency and is thrilled to be given a new job working as a tutor for the teenage son of his idol and subject of his dissertation, J. M. Sinclair. When Liam arrives at the sprawling estate, he’s greeted by Ellis (Crispin Letts), an efficient servant and handler who shows him his quarters and introduces him to Bertie, whose initial response to his new tutor is sullen silence. The house is full of modern art, curated by Hélène, whose impressive career seems dimmed by her husband’s fame. When Sinclair at last deigns to meet Liam face to face, he is both brusque and ingratiating (Grant masterfully manages the many shades of this character). Of course, someone of Sinclair’s prominence knows that Liam has written about him; there was no shortage of self-serving hubris or manipulation in the writer’s decision to hire the tutor. J. M. and Hélène want to be assured that Bertie will be accepted to university. They’re convinced Liam’s reputation as a scholar makes him the man for the job. They’re warm to him, inviting him to dine and to have drinks, but they also arbitrarily dismiss him at times.
Liam is charming, polite, and professional on every level, but his unabashed worship of Sinclair’s novels make him perhaps too curious about the writer’s private life. We learn that the accidental death of Bertie’s brother Felix, a talented writer who struggled with mental illness, has left a painful void in the household. Bertie is struggling with guilt and loss. As Liam persuades Bertie to accept his help and to treat him as a friend, he also finds Bertie’s father asking for his assistance. The tutor has an uncanny ability to memorize seemingly endless amounts of literary text, from poems to passages of prose. This talent compels Sinclair to ask for Liam’s help as he prepares his next novel. Liam is initially flattered, but Sinclair’s narcissism makes him an unpredictable employer, treating Liam as a literary equal one minute and a glorified copyeditor the next. McCormack navigates this demanding role of a charming but self-centered savant with real subtlety and grace. The cat-and-mouse dynamic between him and Sinclair is quite electric at times.
The story’s exposition is set out slowly, setting up a shocking turn of events. The meat of the film is the way Liam is drawn into a strange intimacy with the family as we learn more about the enigmatic agendas that drive these domestic liaisons. Hélène in particular is quite circumspect: she keeps her distance from the tutoring situation and reveals little about herself. Yet there is a subtle but intriguing sense of the femme fatale about her. Liam enjoys walking the grounds of the elegant estate and living in his small but comfortable quarters. He has what any of his peers might consider a dream job. But he also has an agenda, and his creative aspirations are critically affected as he grows closer to Sinclair, and later, to Hélène.
Hélène’s apparent inability to leave her famous husband is puzzling, though the character does manage to procure a sense of redemption for her and Bertie’s years of suffering beneath Sinclair’s narcissistic tyranny. Some of the story elements in The Lesson are somewhat implausible, but to its credit the film never veers into melodrama, as it easily might have done, and the actors keep it grounded in strong character-driven moments. Troughton’s debut is well crafted, with some truly thrilling twists, infused with nervy suspense and an almost Gothic sense of unease.
I found Delpy’s character to be particularly intriguing and inscrutable, and I was able to speak with her about it. How did she prepare to play Hélène, a character who hides such painful and dark secrets?
“I spoke with the director and the writer about it, how she put aside her life to be the wife of the great writer. Not only did he kill her internally, but it also kills the mother within her, driving her son to madness by being such an egomaniac. I felt it was important to find the right kind of tone with her, and for me talking to the director and writer helped me to fine-tune her with the right dose of mystery. She’s an introvert, but she is strong, she’s fragile, she has all these different multifaceted things about her.”
I also asked how Delpy made sense of Hélène’s decision to stay married to this man?
“I think that’s something you can ask many women who are with men like this; how do people stay with artists who have destructive personalities? How do you free yourself from someone like that? It’s not always easy. People get stuck in unhealthy relationships; plenty of people stay with men far less interesting than Sinclair. Narcissists attract people who may be insecure, but also because they’re charming, they shine, they become like the sun, surrounded by these planets.”
I was also intrigued by Hélène’s motivations and tactics, as she grows closer to Liam in ways that belie a complicated agenda.
“Talking to Alice, the director, we knew we didn’t want Hélène to be just some kind of manipulator. She’s not a cold bitch, or a tight-lipped woman in that world. We wanted her to be more original than that. It was about making her unlike characters who typically behave in these ways.” I also noted that although Delpy hasn’t been in very many thrillers, she seems well-suited to this role and genre. “I liked this script because it was so intelligent; I found the story of the narcissist and his family so interesting.”
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Alliance for Women Film Journalists. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.