“The Lesson” is a story about family secrets and manipulation.
It begins with Liam (Daryl McCormack, so good last year in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” which I reviewed here) being hired to tutor high school student Bertie (Stephen McMillan), who’s preparing to take the entrance exam for Oxford University. Bertie is a pretentious little snot who acts like he knows everything and deserves even more, a lesson he’s learned well from his parents. Dad is JM Sinclair (Richard E. Grant), an author of some renown who hasn’t been able to finish a new book for quite a while. He drips with pomposity and a mean streak, never missing a chance to fire a verbal shot at either his son or the tutor. Mom is Hélène (Julie Delpy), an art collector whose cool façade seems impenetrable.
When it’s revealed that the family is still recoiling from the death of an older son, Felix, I thought we were getting an update of “Ordinary People.” Instead, we see the impact of the father’s attempts to control others with cruel disregard. When he discovers that Liam — who reveres him — has been working on a book, too, he demands to see it, then dismisses it with criticism he believes is constructive but is actually the exact opposite.
The mother knows the father is toxic, but doesn’t make any attempts to dissuade him. This leaves Bertie confused, along with the knowledge he can’t live up to his dead sibling in their parents’ estimation.
Director Alice Troughton (making her feature film debut) gives her cast plenty of space to move about as the nuances of the family are revealed, and the cast revels in it. I didn’t like the full screen cards she inserted to divide the sections of the movie, which distract from the ongoing developments, but that’s a minor quibble. I also thought we were headed for a “Death Trap” twist, but Alex MacKeith’s screenplay cleverly takes the plot in a different direction.
The lesson to be learned from “The Lesson” is that any chance to watch Richard E. Grant and Julie Delpy work at the top of their game is worth grabbing. I give it an 8 out of 10.