The Lesson is a solidly executed film that’s worth seeing once just for Grant’s performance, and some audiences are going to love it. Photo courtesy of Poison Chef

Film Review: The Lesson

Film Reviews

The Lesson
Director: Alice Troughton

Poison Chef and Jeva Films
In Theaters 07.07

We’re reaching that point in the summer where I’m ready for fewer explosions and something more character based, and I had high hopes that noir thriller The Lesson would be that change of pace.

The Lesson introduces us to Liam Sommers (Daryl McCormack, Good Luck To You, Leo Grande), a successful author who is interviewing on television about his new best seller, only to then flash back and tell us the story of how he got to this point. An aspiring young writer, Liam is offered a position at the family estate of J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), who is finishing up his next novel. Liam’s job is to help Sinclair’s son Betrie (Stephen McMillian) prepare for college, and it seems too good to be true. Liam has always idolized Sinclair and yearns to learn from this master of the craft.

Bertie’s older brother, Felix, had drowned himself in the lake at the Sinclair manor years before, and it hangs over Bertie, his mother Hélène (Julie Delpy, Before Sunrise) and the household. As Liam starts to bond with Bertie, a mentor-mentee relationship develops, and it appears that a similar dynamic might be developing with J.M., as well … or is it? Family secrets, manipulative maneuvering, denial and unexpected entanglements come to light. Liam realizes that there are multiple stories and revelations heading toward an intriguing intersection.

Television director Alice Troughton (Doctor Who, Merlin, The Sarah Jane Adventures) does a splendid job in her feature debut getting the performances and pacing needed for the story, and Alex MacKeith’s screenplay has plenty of clever dialogue and some entertaining if predictable twists. It also contains a few too many contrivances, chief among them Liam’s eerie ability to memorize every book that he’s ever read in its entirety and down to every last word and punctuation. (Gee, do you think that might be setting up something important?) 

While I found The Lesson to be decadently involving, it feels more like a soap opera with a touch of cat-and-mouse than a thriller. While there’s definitely fun to be had with it on that level, the story of Felix was a bit too unpleasant, and I struggled with trying to have gleeful fun with a story involving teen suicide.

McCormack continues to prove as a charming screen presence, and Delpy adds a wonderful mystique to Hélène. The reason to see this film is clearly Grant, however, and his pitch-perfect portrayal of the pompous and narcissistic literary giant is wickedly engrossing. The less likable J.M. Sinclair becomes, the more The Lesson has you on the edge of your seat. Grant’s performance is a master class of how to make a nasty antagonist drive a story, and he could easily get his second Oscar nomination out of it. It’s simply a shame that the story itself is a bit too overbaked, routine and melodramatic. 

The Lesson is a solidly executed film that’s worth seeing once just for Grant’s performance, and some audiences are going to love it. While I found a lot to enjoy, I can’t say that it was any more thoughtful or emotionally satisfying than the best of the loud summer blockbusters. –Patrick Gibbs

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