THE LESSON Review: An Idea Not Worth Stealing

Daryl McCormack, Richard E. Grant and Julie Delpy star; Alice Troughton directed.

Contributing Writer; UK
THE LESSON Review: An Idea Not Worth Stealing

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

These remarks, written by T. S. Eliot in his essay on the English dramatist Philip Massinger, are taken to their literal and ironic extremes in Alice Troughton’s debut feature, The Lesson. The result is another of those plodding yet strangely hypnotic films in which every character is singularly inept and the mystery as opaque as a polished diamond.

Richard E. Grant plays J. M. Sinclair, an industrious and irascible British novelist who, after a highly successful career, is as good as retired from the literary world. He lives on a large, leafy estate with his son, Bertie, and his wife, Hélène, who rarely speaks and constantly looks as though she were being held at gunpoint. Some years ago, the Sinclairs’ eldest son, Felix, who was a talented writer and prodigious reader, drowned himself in the family pond after receiving some unfavorable criticism from his father. The Sinclairs don’t talk about Felix anymore, preferring instead to vent their grief through snide remarks and petty dinner-table squabbles.

Into this volatile house comes the unassuming Liam Sommers, a fledgling writer hired as a tutor by the Sinclairs to get Bertie into Oxford. Each day, he and Bertie convene in the garden to discuss Shakespeare's plays and sonnets and points of literary theory, and they soon become amiable partners, sharing cigarettes, discussing Sinclair's severity, and reminiscing about Felix’s love of rhododendrons. Meanwhile, in the room opposite Liam’s, Sinclair works untiringly on his next novel, entitled Rose Tree, which is unlike anything he has written before (figured it out yet?).

What we get in The Lesson is perfectly watchable but entirely forgettable stuff. Its duller, more inane qualities — thin plot, TV pacing, sedentary cinematography — are counterbalanced by a small yet formidable cast of veterans and talented newcomers. But this passing mark is not nearly as forgivable as it sounds when one considers the themes on which the story plays. Souring love, artistic competition, familial duty, the death of a child — all these should create a veritable storm of passion and grief; instead, they are treated in the broadest clichés and with a minimum of feeling and pathos.

For instance, when Sinclair leaves to present Rose Tree at a conference, the course of Liam and Hélène’s adulterous evening together is as routine and dispassionate as that of the Fry and Laurie sketch in which a couple and their respective lawyers draw up a contract for the evening’s romance: “Stephen: My client would now like to insert a clause allowing him to spill wine on your client’s blouse and to mop it gently with a handkerchief, lightly brushing your client’s breasts as he does so. Hugh: We feel, in the interests of both parties, that a white wine spritzer should be specified.”

But even that comparison is not entirely accurate — or, indeed, entirely fair to Fry and Laurie —since there isn’t a single memorable joke or clever turn of phrase in The Lesson. Now, humor is not necessary for a good mystery, as the novels of Raymond Chandler prove, but it is hard to see what else one is supposed to enjoy when none of the principal characters is believable, none of the twists in the least moving or shocking or elegantly constructed, and none of the charged emotions allowed more than a pale, fleeting radiance.

One cannot help but imagine what The Lesson might have been in the hands of, say, Rian Johnson, who, in spite of this reviewer’s reservations about the Knives Out films, can at least bamboozle his audience for longer than half an hour and get a few sniggers out of them while he does so.

Or, indeed, what it would’ve looked like under the perverse supervision of Peter Strickland, who delights in exploring his stories' darker, crueler elements — here, Sinclair’s late-night visits to Felix’s room (which is otherwise kept locked) and the suspicious banality of Felix’s death. So The Lesson might have gone the way of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, or, better still, into a more naturalistic version of the story of “The Shakespeare Room” in Martin McDonagh’s play The Pillowman, in which Old Bill Shakespeare keeps a “pygmy lady in a box” and “gives her a stab with a stick every time he wants a new play wrote.” 

Not even the charms and flourishes of Richard E. Grant, who plays Sinclair with a mixture of sad exhaustion and snarling hauteur, can animate what is effectively a long and rather lousy soap opera script. And the rest of the cast is likewise condemned. Both Julie Delpy and Stephen McMillan continually threaten to break out of their invariant roles but sadly never do, and though Daryl McCormack lends his endearing, Bressonian aloofness to Liam, it is still hard to believe in a character who is so intellectual and discerning and yet so slow to spot a trickster.

On the technical side of things, Seth Turner’s lavish set design ties in nicely with the theme of plagiarism (the lily pond, for example, closely resembles Monet’s at Giverny), but otherwise there are few redeeming features. Indeed, Isobel Waller-Bridge’s too-expressive score and Paulo Pandolpho’s breezy editing only further emphasize the real lesson of The Lesson: that light-heartedness and mindlessness are very often one and the same.

The film is now playing in U.S. theaters via Bleeck Street. Visit the official site for more information.  

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Alice TroughtonDaryl McCormackJulie DelpyRichard E. GrantUK

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