The Lesson’s premise is crisply inviting. On the country estate of a celebrated novelist called J.M. Sinclair (an imperious Richard E Grant), the suicide of one of his sons has sunk the family into stasis. The surviving boy, Bertie (Stephen McMillan) needs coaching for his Oxford entrance exam, and a live-in tutor called Liam (Daryl McCormack) is hired, without admitting that he’s professionally obsessed with Sinclair’s work, and desperate to glean details about a promised new novel. All the while, the writer’s wife Hélène (Julie Delpy, in an underwritten role) watches coolly from the sidelines.
Playwright-turned-screenwriter Alex MacKeith dabbles here in a literary chamber piece that has the aura of Henry James by way of Gilbert (The Dreamers) Adair. Is Liam the doting amanuensis he pretends, or more of a spy, or a scheming rival? Only Hélène knows that he’s been writing his doctoral thesis on her husband’s work. Sinclair himself, in Grant’s testy, rather poisonous portrait, is too wrapped up in self-adulation, and implicit terror of being past his sell-by date, to give the younger man more than flickers of grudging attention.
As a feature directing debut for Doctor Who veteran Alice Troughton, this is all elegant surfaces and insinuation – you hold out hope for a deadly sting in the tail, even as it starts to lead you down the garden path. McCormack, such a great discovery in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, has an alert, smouldering intelligence throughout. His seduction of Hélène can only be a matter of time for anyone who’s seen The Servant, or Pasolini’s Theorem, but the film only feints in the direction of Bertie, too, falling under his spell – a wisp of intrigue among many, kept ambiguously in play just as much by McMillan’s fine acting as McCormack’s.
“Great writers steal,” Sinclair keeps declaring – a line to which Grant, who’s very enjoyable in his slithery way, gives a ripe pomposity, as a clearly practiced punchline for this book-world celebrity that rather gives away where the film is headed.
The Lesson’s own punchline – and it needs one – never successfully lands. You may come away toying with three or four solutions to this riddle that are potentially wittier than MacKeith’s. We get some cumbersome business with twin internet servers, and an unconvincing device involving Liam’s word-perfect recall of entire tomes he’s only read once. As a scratchy string quartet for the four actors, it continues to work surprisingly well – you might hand it back with a B+ in that department. But as a storytelling assignment, it droops little by little into the C zone.
The Lesson is in cinemas tomorrow