July 7, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Alice Troughton
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the dramatic film “The Lesson” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black/biracial person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A famous author, who is in an unhappy marriage, hires his teenage son’s literature tutor to secretly finish the novel that is overdue to the book publisher, but this deception leads to more complications.
Culture Audience: “The Lesson” will appeal primarily to people who are people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and dramas about secrets, lies and double-crossing among a group of people.
“The Lesson” foreshadows too much in the movie’s opening scene, which is revisited at the very end of this psychological drama. Daryl McCormack gives an effective performance though. He elevates the movie in the areas where the pacing is slow and dull. “The Lesson” (formerly titled “The Tutor”) had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.
Directed by Alice Troughton and written by Alex MacKeith, “The Lesson” has a relatively small number of people (only four) in its principal cast and only a few locations. The main location is a lavish estate in an unnamed part of England. “The Lesson” was actually filmed on location at Haddon House in Derbyshire, England. Because almost everything in the movie takes place on this estate property, it’s meant to convey that this estate is almost like a prison to the people who live there.
“The Lesson” begins with a scene of Irish author Liam Somers (played by McCormack), who is in his 20s, being interviewed for a one-on-one Q&A on stage for his first novel. He’s in an auditorium that can hold about 500 people. This speaking appearance is well-attended. It’s an indication that Liam’s novel is a success.
The interviewer (played by Tomas Spencer) gives Liam a glowing introduction: “Liam Somers’ story of a fading patriarch presiding over a grief-stricken family has been described as one of the most striking debuts of the year. Here with us to discuss his first novel is the author … What exactly drew you to tell this story?” Just as Liam is about to speak, the movie goes into flashback mode and stays there until the very last scene, which circles back to Liam’s Q&A on stage.
This very long flashback shows what inspired Liam to write his first novel. He was hired for a summer job to be a live-in literature tutor for Bertie Sinclair (played by Stephen McMillan), who’s about 17 years old, at the estate where Bertie lives with his parents. Bertie is mostly introverted and sullen. Bertie has a complicated and tension-filled relationship with his father J.M. Sinclair (played by Richard E. Grant), who is a very famous author. Bertie’s mother/J.M.’s wife Hélène Sinclair (played by Julie Delpy) is a French immigrant who is a homemaker and socialite.
Not long after beginning his job as Bertie’s tutor, Liam finds out that this family is grieving over the death of Bertie’s older brother Felix (played by Joseph Muerer, seen in photos), who died three years ago. Felix drowned in a large pond on the family’s property. J.M. was the one who found Felix in the pond, when Liam had already been dead for a while. Hélène wasn’t home at the time of this drowning because she was traveling in Venice, Italy. Bertie was away at boarding school.
Bertie still goes to boarding school, but his parents have decided Bertie will live with them for the summer, so he can be tutored in their home. It’s mentioned several times that Bertie needs to prepare for an entrance exam to an elite academic institution that is not named in the movie. Bertie is obviously feeling the pressure to be admitted into this institution, but observant viewers will notice that it’s what his parents want. No one seems to have asked Bertie if going to this institution is what he wants, but he’s feeling the pressure to please his parents.
Before Liam took this job, he was already familiar with who J.M. is, because Liam is seen looking at interviews of J.M. on the Internet. In these interview clips, J.M.’s pompous and smug personality is obvious. In one of the archival interviews, he says: “Something can be deferred or derived if you have to do it—which, by the way, is the prerequisite for writing.”
J.M. adds, “You don’t have a choice in the matter. You must write. Average writers attempt originality. They fail, universally. Good writers have the sense to borrow from the better ones. The great writers steal.” And then, J.M. chuckles, which is the exact moment that you know that this story is about J.M. taking other people’s work and putting his name on it.
This isn’t spoiler information, because it’s already show “The Tutor” trailer. Soon after Liam starts his tutoring job, he signs a non-disclosure agreement that Hélène gives him. Hélène tells Liam some “ground rules” about J.M. as a boss: “”We don’t talk about his wor. We don’t talk about Felix. Follow those rules, and we should be find.”
But, of course, J.M. does actually talk about his work to Liam. J.M. tells Liam that Liam has to write the ending of a novel that J.M. has been struggling to finish. The name of the novel is “Rose Tree,” which is overdue to the book publisher that has been pressuring J.M. to finish the book.
J.M. offers to pay Liam extra money and expects Liam to keep this ghost writing a secret. Liam reluctantly agrees. J.M. is also an “old school” writer who has basic knowledge about computers. Liam tells J.M. that Liam has experience in information technology, so Liam is expected to help J.M. in that area too.
There’s more to this story that won’t be revealed in the review. But it’s enough to say that Liam soon becomes ensnarled in the Sinclair family’s dysfunction. J.M. is demanding and has a cruel streak that he mostly directs at Bertie. J.M. can be verbally abusive and prone to temper tantrums, but then he’s apologetic afterward. It’s a common characteristic of abusers who convince people to excuse their awfulness without the abusers making any real effort to change their abusive ways.
J.M. is the type of arrogant host who will try to act superior to everyone in the household. During Liam’s first dinner with the Sinclair family, J.M. has a nearby stereo playing a piece from Russian classical music composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. To test Liam’s knowledge, J.M. asks Liam if he knows anything about Rachmaninoff. Liam then starts listing biographical information about Rachmaninoff, but J.M. isn’t satisfied with that answer.
With a condescending tone to his voice, J.M. repeats the question to Liam. J.M. expects Liam to say what Liam thinks about Rachmaninoff’s music. Liam admits that he’s not familiar with Rachmaninoff’s music. J.M. then smirks and looks at Liam, as if to silently say, “I know you’re not as smart as you think you are.”
Hélène acts as if she’s emotionally checked out of this marriage but only stays because of Bertie and because she doesn’t think she has anywhere else to go. One of the biggest problems with “The Lesson” is that there are hardly any backstories for the four main characters in this movie. Hélène and Liam are the characters that needed backstories the most.
Sure, Hélène is a “trophy wife,” but what led her into this marriage in the first place? Was J.M. always this obnoxious? Don’t expect answers to those questions. Hélène briefly mentions her interest in fine art and that she’s learning to play classical piano, but that’s about it. J.M. and Hélène seem very isolated from having family and friends in their lives. Outside of the family home, J.M. and Hélène are only seen communicating with people about J.M.’s career. Hélène has the role of being an intermediary when J.M. is trying to avoid the people who want updates on when his next book will be completed.
But sometimes, J.M. can’t avoid these questions. In an interview on stage that’s similar to the one that Liam does in the movie’s opening scene, J.M. is asked by the interviewer if J.M.’s grief over Felix’s death is affecting J,M.’s work on J.M.’s next novel. J.M. angrily replies, “I will not be writing about his death. I will be writing in spite of it. I will have your novel when it’s ready!” J.M. then abruptly gets up, rips off his microphone, and storms out of the room.
Liam remains a mystery throughout the entire movie, which never reveals what type of background he has. Viewers can assume that he took the job working for the Sinclair family because he needs the money, but there could have been other motivations that are hinted at but never fully explored later in the movie. During the entire time that Liam is living on the Sinclair family’s property, he is never seen contacting any family members or friends.
A few other things about “The Lesson” don’t ring true. There’s only one servant seen on this vast property: a butler named Ellis (played by Crispin Letts), who is seen interacting mostly with Hélène. He is also helpful when Liam needs anything, such as fresh coffee. It’s hard to believe that the Sinclairs just have this one butler taking care of everything for this lavish estate.
Where are the cooks? Where are the housekeepers? Where are the gardeners? Where are the maintenance workers? J.M. is the type of successful author who should have a personal assistant, but no such person is seen or mentioned in “The Lesson,” presumably because it’s a low-budget independent film. But surely, it’s not that hard or costly to hire a few extras to be in the background for these roles.
At any rate, the middle section of “The Lesson” really drags with a lot of repetitive tedium showing J.M. pressuring Liam to finish the book and being an argumentative jerk to everyone, while Hélène goes through the motions in being a dutiful wife. There’s a scene where Liam accidentally sees Hélène and J.M. start to get sexually intimate through a nearby window. Liam stares but then discreetly looks away. However, if you’ve seen enough movies like this, then you won’t be surprised by what happens when J.M. is away on a business trip, and Hélène and Liam find themselves alone in a room together.
There is very little shown of Liam actually giving tutoring lessons to Bertie. Instead, Liam (who is a calm and patient tutor) seems more like he was hired to be a companion for a lonely and unhappy teen. Bertie eventually opens up a little to Liam when Bertie sees that J.M. is also rude and volatile to Liam. During Liam’s first day on the job, he was warned by Bertie that the Sinclair family has gone through other tutors who quit. Liam is not intimidated when he hears that there’s been high turnover rate for other tutors hired by this family.
There’s some interesting psychological context of the marriage between J.M. and Hélène. Based on what Hélène tells Liam, J.M. calls her “the missing mother,” because she was away on a trip when Felix died. It’s Hélène’s way of telling Liam that J.M. unfairly blames Hélène for Liam’s death. In J.M.’s mind, if someone had been home at the time that Felix was drowning, maybe Felix could have been saved. And it just goes back to an unanswered question that the movie never bothers to answer: “Where were the servants?”
As for the secrecy over finishing “Rose Tree,” it has some twists and turns. All of these plot developments aren’t too surprising. The movie would’ve been better off not having the opening scene that it does, because this opening scene reveals too much of the outcome that’s shown toward the end of the film. This climactic scene isn’t very suspenseful but more like a confirmation of what was already hinted at early in the movie.
In the role of domineering J.M., Grant sometimes overacts, especially in a showdown scene toward the end, when the movie veers dangerously close to being campy. Delpy is quite good in her portrayal of someone who is emotionally numb, but she’s not unaware of everything going on in the household. McCormack gives as much depth as he can to a character that needed more development. In the end, “The Lesson” is a flawed but still fairly engaging drama that can be enjoyed by viewers who know that this movie is not intended to be a masterpiece.
Bleecker Street released “The Lesson” in select U.S. cinemas on July 7, 2023.