The Lesson (2023)

‘The Lesson’ is a study in razor-sharp satire

Attributed to many, invoked by countless more, the old literary saw, “The best writers steal,” gets a thorough working over in Alice Troughton’s delicious debut, “The Lesson.” While it teaches us nothing new, it does benefit from superior work by Richard E. Grant, Julie Delpy and Daryl McCormack as self-serving combatants in a juicy tale of opportunism and deception.

Set almost entirely on the sprawling English (actually German) estate of celebrated author J.M. Sinclair (Grant), Troughton uses her impressive debut as an opportunity to eviscerate the wealthy and the pompous with a wry wit and bitter irony. Who holds the upper hand in this clash of class, race and gender? Is it Sinclair, in the throes of a two-year-long writing slump? Or, could it be his art curator wife, Hélène (Delpy), who wields her sexually tinged cynicism like a knife? Or, is it Liam Sommers (McCormack), the handsome, mixed-race upstart hoping to parlay a live-in job prepping the Sinclairs’ lethargic son (Stephen McMillan) for his Oxford entrance exams, into a chance to rub elbows with his idol and potential paladin in J.M.?

Troughton and rookie scripter Alex MacKeith infuse the intrigue with plenty of subtle commentary on contemporary societal ills via the ever-shifting power dynamics among the three adults, none of whom reveal their true motives until a third act brimming with twists, revelations and misadventures that may well end in death. After all, there’s already been one casualty before Liam sets foot on the property. And that was the Sinclairs’ oldest son, an aspiring author, who took his last breath in the dark, murky pond looming ominously just outside the family’s rustic chateau. Was it a suicide, as billed, or something far more sinister?

What I liked most about “The Lesson” is the deliberate, methodical manner in which Troughton and MacKeith slowly reveal their cards, trusting their terrific actors to keep us engaged throughout. For Grant and Delpy, this is almost second nature. The surprise is the fast-rising McCormack, who builds on his impressive performances in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” and the Apple+ series, “Bad Sisters.” Sure, he’s handsome as heck, but there’s much more to this charismatic actor than meets the eye. He radiates an openness and warmth that instantly draw you in. You trust him, as well as the instincts of his character, a supposed groupie who isn’t nearly as blind and naive as one assumes.

He more than holds his own opposite Delpy’s subdued sexpot, Hélène, whose talent as a multifaceted artist in her own right is consistently marginalized by the obnoxious bluster of a husband with an insatiable need to feed his enormous ego. Like Job, she bides her time until … Well, I’ll leave it at that. Just know her Hélène is nowhere near as passive as she seems. Nor is Grant’s J.M. the literary luminary he’s been purported to be. And when he tosses out his arrogant bon mots about “The best writers steal,” you suspect it’s actually an attempt to appease a lingering guilt over his own lack of originality. That’s not the case with Grant, who never fails to find new ways to flesh out rote characters like J.M.

It’s that freshness that keeps “The Lesson” afloat with its tantalizing blend of satire and disquietude. It doesn’t always work. At times, the filmmakers fall prey to their inexperience. But for a great majority of the movie’s 103 minutes, they and their fabulous cast take us to school on the advantages of being shrewd and devious. Consider it a “Lesson” well taught.

Movie review

The Lesson

Rated: R for language and sexual situations

Cast: Richard E. Grant, Julie Delpy and Daryl McCormack

Director: Alice Troughton

Writer: Alex MacKeith

Runtime: 103 minutes

Grade: B+

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