'The Lesson' teaches the sly nature of writing
By Martha K. Baker
"The Lesson" is either a wily look at the secrets nestled within the bosom of a family, or it is a pale thriller, dependent on suspension of disbelief. It is enjoyable right up until the moment a viewer says, "Hold the phone." Once that thought enters the critical mind, it's hard to crawl back into the set-up.
As in "Tar," introduced with an interview with the subject, "The Lesson" begins with an, albeit shorter, interview, held within a wooden clamshell on a television set. The noted author, J.M. Sinclair, declares: “Average writers attempt originality, but the great writers steal.” Enter the younger writer, Liam, his hopes barely balancing his confidence.
The young man is hired to tutor Sinclair's son, Bertie, in preparation for college. At first, Liam thinks he is hired by the great writer, but it soon becomes apparent that the writer's wife, Helene, a curator, is governing the hire.
Liam sets about gaining Bertie's confidence, despite being on the outside of the Sinclair family and despite Bertie's never looking him in the eye. On a parallel track, a technical glitch with Sinclair's computer places Liam directly in the lines of Sinclair secrets, slights, and sex.
Alex MacKeith's script reveals the secrets slowly but not sensationally. Alice Troughton, who directed several "Dr. Who"s, works well within the framework of the thriller, emphasizing a lake, a desk, and a guest house. She quotes "Rear Window" in the eaves-dropping, and she exploits reflection -- in glass, in eyeglasses, in screen monitors, in water.
She gets good work from Richard E. Grant as the arrogant and charming writer, fulfilling the promise the actor showed in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" Spreading his wings as Liam is Daryl McCormack, who debuted handsomely in "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande." Julie Delpy stays in the shadows; she has performed better, certainly in the "Before" series, maybe because she co-wrote it. Tomas Spencer serves as the interviewer in the James Lipton tradition, and Stephen McMillan brings Bertie to life.
Significant in "The Lesson" is the music, both the classical music played remotely and ostentatiously by Sinclair at dinners and the incidental music that Isobel Waller-Bridge composed for the film. Waller-Bridge also composed music for "Emma" and "Fleabag," her sister Phoebe's comedy.
"The Lesson" is intriguing and baffling yet demeaning as it mangles the art of writing.