The Lesson


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The Lesson
"The Lesson is a treat. It's properly constructed, beautifully played. It might not quite cleave to classical unities but it knows enough to weave its course among them." | Photo: Anna Patarakina, courtesy of Bleecker Street

There's a moment after one of The Lesson's lessons where a young student talks about the freedom to compare works between genres, to look for parallels. There's another where there's a discussion of a third section, how it doesn't quite fit with tone. These two, perhaps slightly more than anything else, are keys to reading a film that is deliberately literary in its aspirations and inspirations, and all the more powerful for it.

There are five parts. To the story, epilogue, prologue, I, II, that ill-fitting III. To the cast, author JM Sinclair, wife Helene, son Bertie, butler Ellis, and into them tutor Liam. The intent is for Bertie to earn a place at one of the Oxbridge colleges, competitive enough that graduate Liam is brought on in lieu of boarding school study to get Bertie over the line. It's one of many lines, crossed, crossed out, outed.

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Five points interconnected will make a pentagon, a pentagram, and in the spaces between depending on the magics involved a summoning or a binding. Contracts abound: though Faust is never mentioned there are bargains aplenty and references everywhere to other authors, other works. If it were subtitled it would be no more or less a movie that invites reading. The Lesson is a début feature for veteran TV director Alice Troughton who, like many actors, has Doctors, Holby City and Eastenders credits, but latterly higher profile fare like Baghdad Central and A Discovery Of Witches. She's done some genre work as well, DC series Legends Of Tomorrow and The Flash, and that might explain a couple of bits of CG for detail. They do appear a little outwith the ordinary, but not as much as anything in A Haunting In Venice. That film mentioned as this too is a work with literary antecedents that's built around the presence of a ghost, of a controlling entity.

Written by Alex McKeith, for whom it's also a début feature, this has moments where it is easy to see his career as a playwright. Sometimes we will use 'stagey' to describe a certain tone in films, but sometimes it isn't a weakness but an archness. Dogville, for example, or Asteroid City. The film does start and end on a stage, indeed the same one is revisited, Here the nature of it is in the precision of the dialogue, the certainty of its relations, the sense that there was something on the page from which things spring. Troughton uses Anna Patarakina's camera to good effect, focusing the audience's attention where she wants it. The act before reading is seeing, and The Lesson leads us carefully through its garden paths. This sense of craft is also in the score, Isobel Waller-Bridge sometimes sits aside to allow for Beethoven or Rachmaninoff or The Incredible String Band, but what felt like a waltz opens the film. That's the sense of one, two, three, of relationships with another involved.

Comparisons between works and genres there. Richard E Grant is novelist JM Sinclair, still in a long hiatus since his last novel. Julie Delpy his wife, formerly a curator, arranging studies. Stephen McMillan, who I most recently saw in differently recursive family drama The Möbius Trip is their surviving son, Bertie. There's a clue there, to the labyrinthine motivations. Crispin Letts is their butler Ellis. He's one of those guys, with a CV that includes roles like Doctor and Officer and Judge and Parole Board Chairman. Joining the set is Daryl McCormack as Liam. A swimmer, a scholar, a scribe himself, the novel circumstances of his appointment are both prompt and response to events. He's had a central role in film before, as the eponymous Leo Grande. The charisma and coolness he displayed opposite Emma Thompson serves him well here with names like Grant and Delpy.

I don't want to say too much, because you should see this and feel the thrill as it ties its threads together. There's a sculpture based upon Apollo and Daphne and the fact that tale has assumed Hellenic origins that are lost. That's a tale of transformation, of the unrequited, of curses. Comparisons between works and genres there. Parallels too. Things are forbidden, forgotten. Other than that setting stage the stage is set in a house, not quite stately, certainly large enough to hold secrets. There's a pond, one stocked with coypu. That's technically an invasive species, but they are not the only cuckoos in the proverbial nest. There's art and artist aplenty. In my notes I included in the thicket of relationships progeny from prosody - The Rose Tree, Tower 24. There's mention of a thesis, of study. There's a study too, in which a key is hidden. Even more so in the epilogue, where only one within the audience and the audience beyond the fourth wall's fourth wall know that there's a roman a clef at play.

The Lesson is a treat. It's properly constructed, beautifully played. It might not quite cleave to classical unities but it knows enough to weave its course among them. It's "never dull to discuss the work," but that's just "one story." There are other options, other avenues, other connections. The Lesson is a demonstration of learning, of excellent craft by cast and crew. I cannot mandate attendance, but you will benefit from heeding The Lesson.

Reviewed on: 22 Sep 2023
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The Lesson packshot
A young novelist eager to make a name for himself begins tutoring the son of one of the most influential writers in the world. Good intentions soon give way to suspicion as darker motivations surface and the lines of master and protégé are blurred.
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Director: Alice Troughton

Writer: Alex MacKeith

Starring: Richard E Grant, Julie Delpy, Daryl McCormack, Stephen McMillan, Crispin Letts

Year: 2023

Runtime: 103 minutes

Country: UK


Tribeca 2023

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