The literary world, like Hollywood, relies on myth-making. Without it, figures of renown struggle to catch in popular culture. While the work will often be the primary reason the world pays attention to the author, the story of their rise helps layer additional insight into the work. Throughout The Lesson, Director Alice Troughton asks the audience to peek behind the curtain at the wizards. However, what we find does not create the allure one would hope to discover.
After the death of his son, literary giant J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant) has been private. However, the family dynamics change when a new tutor Liam (Daryl McCormack) enters the house. J.M. gains the focus to complete his novel. With Liam’s help, J.M.’s son Bertie (Stephen McMillan) works to get into Oxford. The silent, observant wife, Hélène (Julie Delpy), shows flashes of interest in Liam. As Liam and J.M. grow close, the definitions of mentor, mentee, and interloper begin to blend.
Troughton and screenwriter Alex MacKeith find fertile ground in the ideas of The Lesson. Much of the story revolves around the gatekeeping and sense of belonging that fuel artistic endeavors. Casting McCormack allows The Lesson to take on the racial components and obstacles in Liam’s way. This should make for a winning narrative, with McCormack, Delpy, and Grant delivering excellent turns.
Instead, the pacing and momentum grind to a halt. We feel it’s the length as the conversations become pedantic. Other films and novels have explored the big turns in the story. While The Lesson gets close to delivering profound concepts, it too readily retreats into the obvious choice. A more daring approach tot he interpersonal relationships would have elevated this picture.
Delpy dominates the film, showcasing her power as a performer throughout. Never allowed to grieve, or worse – doing so alone – has left her with plans of vengeance. While The Lesson telegraphs some of her animosity, her performance overcomes any issues this would create. Perhaps the best moments come in the quiet interactions between Delpy and McCormack, who imbue a sense of longing and desire into their non-verbal communication. However, audiences who enjoy Delpy have seen her in this kind of role before, and as a result, it loses a bit of the edge.
Grant could give this kind of performance in his sleep. He’s always been an actor who plays into his big choices and moments. This should work extremely well opposite McCormack, who plays Liam as a reserved yet ambitious writer. Their chemistry delivers a “will they, won’t they” feeling into the narrative. Even as Grant’s J.M. continually holds power over the young writer, we wonder how their relationship could be subverted. The one legitimately wise choice of the film is never to embrace a romantic relationship. Instead, The Lesson plays on the adversarial tension they create. Yet despite this, we do not see either actor showcase aspects of their talent that feel new or special. Instead, The Lesson feels relatively inert in that regard.
While The Lesson provides some decent tension, its lack of inventive storytelling never lets it take hold. While the three performances and direction offer some interesting moments, we want more to come from these interactions. With a somewhat predictable and mostly safe structure, The Lesson ultimately falls short of its potential.