'The Lesson' review: Richard E. Grant and Julie Delpy are in top form in exquisite sun-filled noir

‘The Lesson’ review: Richard E. Grant and Julie Delpy are in top form in exquisite sun-filled noir

Alice Troughton’s feature debut is a gem, an exquisitely crafted chamber piece starring Richard E. Grant as JM Sinclair, an acclaimed novelist on the rise, Julie Delpy as Helene, his art curator wife, and Daryl McCormack as Liam, an aspiring novelist who idolizes Sinclair. With an intelligent script that keeps us off guard, the setting of a pretty country estate whose sumptuous imagery masks a dark background and a soundtrack that draws us into an increasingly disturbing world, The lesson it’s a little treat.

The opening scene makes it seem like we can see the entire trajectory of the film. Liam is interviewed about his first novel, whose plot about a great patriarchal writer is obviously based on Sinclair. The narrative then returns to the beginning of the story, when Liam is hired to tutor the Sinclairs’ son Bertie (Stephen McMillan) for his entrance exams to Oxford University. Alex MacKeith’s script is full of twists and turns, however, and we soon see that all three main characters are thoroughly manipulative.

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The lesson

The bottom line

Delicious betrayal.

Place: Tribeca Festival (Story in the Spotlight)
Launch: Richard E. Grant, Julie Delpy, Daryl McCormack, Stephen McMillan, Crispin Letts
Director: Alice Troughton
Writer: Alex MacKeith

Rated R, 1 hour 43 minutes

Liam is writing a thesis on Sinclair, which Sinclair doesn’t know about. Helene knows this, but she hired him anyway. Whether this is due to or despite her secret agenda is something she keeps to herself for much of the film. Sinclair himself is a roaring ego of a man, given to bombastic statements in interviews, such as “Good writers borrow, great writers steal,” a variation on a phrase more often attributed to Picasso, sometimes TS Eliot or others. Thief that he is, Sinclair never bothers to suggest he stole the line. Literary theft is only the most evident element of the mystery that slowly comes into play.

When Liam arrives at the Sinclairs’, we settle into a world of comfort and luxury, a large, light-filled house with rolling lawns and a faithful butler (Crispen Letts) — a Downton Abbey without aristocrats or money problems. It is the idealized image of a modernized English country house; you wouldn’t guess the actual location was in Hamburg. There’s also a lake on the grounds, but that’s where the Sinclairs’ eldest son drowned himself, the first hint of the story’s tragic undertow.

Seth Turner’s scenography fills the house with contemporary art, reflecting Helene’s career. Anna Patarakina’s cinematography creates a warm, inviting glow, a sunny surface that makes the world seem irresistible even though we realize how deceptive that appearance can be. And Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score fits beautifully with the idea of ​​a surface embellishing the truth. Its lyrical, waltzing melodies suggest formality and confidence at first, but ultimately change just enough to feel menacing.

It doesn’t take long for conflicts to creep in, even if in a real well-mannered way they’re cloaked in enigmatic smiles. The actors are as cunning as the script, gradually letting us see the true nature of their characters. Much of the film focuses on Liam. McCormack, who has already made a good impression Good luck to you, Great Leo AND bad sisters, create another charismatic figure here. Liam is somehow sympathetic, dressed in a T-shirt when he might have known him better in this family, struggling to reach the classical music references that the family throws so naturally at dinner. But he’s also a voyeur and definitely up to something as he spins around his literary hero of him. We don’t even know if he can write. He works on a novel that he wants Sinclair to read, by hand in a bound notebook from cover to cover, seemingly without any revisions. Who writes like this?

Sinclair works on a computer, with a printer and backup not working as they should, leading him to request Liam’s technical help. Sinclair is so self-absorbed, so hard on his son and so dismissive of his wife, that we suspect he has a secret agenda of his own, especially when he asks Liam to check out his latest work and agrees to read Liam’s in exchange.

Grant can make slimier people seem nice, though. And in the last stretch of the film, he makes the most of his big, explosive scenes. Of course Sinclair doesn’t want an honest critique of his work from the unpublished writer. His cruel reaction is eloquent, chilling and sets in motion the events that reveal what could have happened all along. Grant shows us both the magnitude of Sinclair’s ego and the depth of his pain.

All the while, Delpy makes Helene a serene presence, saddened by grief for her eldest son, concerned for Bertie, but also a sexual magnet to both her husband and guardian. She glides across the outfit with a blissful smile, another illusory touch.

Troughton, who directed for British television, lends the film a tone of supreme self-confidence, deftly guiding its twists and dark turns. And he adds some witty touches, including a scene where the 1956 film noir Surrender to the night plays in the background of a conversation, and the camera pans to a woman with a gun. Lead or red herring or neither?

Beneath its elegant surface, The lesson tackles heavy themes of art, inspiration, classism, sexism, betrayal and revenge in a beautiful and impressive little package.