The lesson in The Lesson is very simple: “Great writers steal.” It certainly seems to be the motto of writer Alex MacKeith and director Alice Troughton (despite her extensive work on Doctor Who, she is not related to the Second Doctor), whose film is pulled from an array of forebears, not least Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. The Lesson is about an aspiring author, played by Daryl McCormack, hired to provide Oxford admissions tuition to the son of prestigious writer J.M. Sinclair, played by Richard E. Grant. Staying in an outhouse on the Sinclairs’ estate, he grows closer to the family and uncovers secrets about Sinclair’s inspirations.
It is well-trodden terrain, and none of the twists in the tale come as a surprise. Yet sometimes that is perfectly pleasant, especially when handled by such formidable actors. McCormack, having made a name for himself with Good Luck To You, Leo Grande opposite Emma Thompson, has delicious resonance, which lends his character a Shakespearean aura. Indeed, the parallels with Hamlet come thick and fast, Grant relishing his sinister Claudius-like patriarch, and Julie Delpy making for a scintillating Gertrude as Sinclair’s art-seller wife. The interplay between the three, with Stephen McMillan doing a fine job as the Sinclairs’ son, makes for tantalising Sunday-teatime fare.
Troughton, too, shows promise in her command of the film’s stylistic elements. J.M. Sinclair’s penchant for Russian composers is elegantly mirrored in Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score, largely consisting of a mock-Shostakovich waltz repeated ad nauseam throughout, which pairs well with Anna Patarakina’s cut-glass cinematography. Between the acting showcases, The Lesson consists of some rather artistic tableaux, evidently inspired by artists including Monet and Millais, and breathless montage deftly edited by Paulo Pandolpho. There’s something delectable and dark about it, like a fine claret drunk copiously while watching reruns of Poirot.