The Movie Waffler New to VOD - THE LESSON | The Movie Waffler


An aspiring writer uncovers intrigue when he accepts the role of tutor to the son of his favourite author.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Alice Troughton

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

The Lesson poster

Continental European thrillers have long drawn inspiration from Britain. The German Krimis of the 1960s were mostly loose adaptations of works by Edgar Wallace. The Italian Gialli of the '60s and '70s were inspired by the popularity of classic English whodunits, reissued in Italy in distinctively lurid yellow-bound paperbacks. French filmmakers have always been drawn to adapting British crime fiction, much of which is overlooked in its own country. It's very much a one-way street, as British cinema rarely draws inspiration from the continent.

Alice Troughton's feature directorial debut The Lesson is a British movie that does feel influenced by Europe, specifically France. That's to say that at its best it resembles the work of Ozon, Chabrol and Becker. You might even be fooled into believing it's a remake of a French movie adapted from some forgotten British novel. The French actress Julie Delpy is cast in just the sort of role a French filmmaker might give to an English actress like Charlotte Rampling or Kristin Scott-Thomas.

The Lesson review

A lot of French thrillers don't really become thrillers until their final acts, and the transition isn't always successful. They tend to play better as character dramas, as battles of wits and psychological powerplays, and they become less interesting when a corpse is eventually discovered. That's an issue The Lesson shares with its French cousins. For its first two thirds it's a gripping character drama, a fascinating battle of wits and an intriguing psychological powerplay. But then it becomes a thriller in its final act and much of its good work is undone.

This is largely intentional on the part of Troughton and screenwriter Alex MacKeith. Their film is broken into three distinct parts marked by intertitles. Troughton and MacKeith want the viewer to be acutely aware of their film's final act shift. It might be a case of filmmakers being a little too clever for their own good.

At one point our protagonist, young writing tutor and aspiring novelist Liam (Daryl McCormack), gives a critique of the long awaited comeback novel of his literary hero, author JM Sinclair (Richard E. Grant). He offers that he loves the work, but that it's let down by a final act that feels like it belongs to a different book. Such self-awareness renders much of my critique null and void.

The Lesson review

Liam finds himself in the company of Sinclair when he is hired by the author's wife, French artist Helene (Delpy), to tutor their teenage son Bertie (Stephen McMillan), who simply must get into Oxford's English Literature programme. Whether Bertie actually wishes to follow his father's footsteps is another matter however, and the boy reacts sullenly to Liam's intrusion. There's also the metaphorical ghost of Felix - Bertie's older brother, who drowned himself in the estate's pond - hovering over proceedings.

Liam is initially ignored by Sinclair until he proves himself useful by fixing his temperamental printer. The cantankerous author is also impressed by Liam's ability to store entire volumes of literature in his head. It's a skill he claims isn't a photographic memory but rather a reaction to words. When the two men agree to read and offer mutual critiques of their latest work, the stage is set for a potentially fraught scenario. Liam is probably happy enough to learn how bad his writing is, but Sinclair has only ever been told how great a writer he is. This can't possibly end well.

Much of The Lesson plays out as a classic joust between a person of power and an underling desperate to get some of that power for themselves. If you've seen the likes of Damien Chazelle's Whiplash or Alain Corneau's Love Crime (one of the best French thrillers to cast the aforementioned Scott-Thomas as a villainess), you'll be familiar with how this dance goes. Sinclair almost seems to get off on subjecting Liam to a variety of micro-aggressions and outright cruelty. The younger man largely soaks it all up, possibly because like any writer he's dogged by insecurity, but possibly because he has ulterior motives.

The Lesson review

McCormack delivers a striking star-making turn that sees him turn on the charm while also coming off as a little creepy. We're never quite sure what to make of Liam, who might be the victim or the perpetrator when the story ultimately reveals itself. Casting a black Irish actor, and allowing him to keep his accent, adds an extra dimension, creating an unspoken tension between this self-educated working class product of two colonised cultures and the English and French toffs whose domain he now finds himself in. Liam walks around the estate with his hands constantly by his side, as though he's worried he might break something he couldn't possibly pay for. I'm not sure if Troughton is actually aware of this dynamic (McCormack's presence is likely a piece of colourblind casting), but it's clear that McCormack certainly is, and is likely drawing on his own experience of being thrust into the very white and upper middle class world of the arts. Liam spends a lot of time awkwardly standing outside rooms, but McCormack's ambiguous body language leaves room for interpretation – is he waiting uncomfortably to be invited in or snooping and gathering evidence?

A shame then that so much of this good work is undone by a final act that takes the film into thriller territory. The shift never feels organic, and like Get Out, it relies heavily on a white antagonist clunkily explaining the plot to the black lead. Yes, the shift is clearly intentional and all very meta, but it could have been handled in more confidently cinematic fashion.

The Lesson
 is on UK/ROI VOD from December 11th.

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