There are murky waters, literally and figuratively, in THE LESSON, a languid tragedy of manners about family dynamics and career neuroses. At its center are Liam Somers (Daryl McCormack), a brilliant literature tutor struggling to complete his first novel, and the subject of Liam’s Oxford thesis, the revered writer, J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant). To his astonishment, Somers finds himself at Sinclair’s stately country home as the live-in tutor for Sinclair’s son, Bertie (Stephen McMillan), preparing him for the stringent admissions process at Oxford, where, we learn, placement in the literature program is highly competitive. Naturally, the placid atmosphere of well-kept grounds and a luxe house is a mere façade that barely conceals the roiling tensions between father and son, barely mediated by wife and mother respectively, Hélène (Julie Delpy).
From the outset, Liam is always gently but firmly reminded of his servant status, treated with smoothly civilized condescension by J.M, with far less civilized condescension by Bertie, and with Gallic impersonality by Hélène. Indeed, the only exception is Ellis (Crispin Letts), the butler who insists on addressing Liam as Mr. Somers while treating him with the same deference as the Sinclairs themselves. Relegated to the guest house, Liam’s view of the main house nonetheless offers him a glimpse of the great writer at work in his study, as well an intriguing insight into his relationship with his wife. They are a family living solitary lives in their large, isolated home, coming together only over meals where soup is eaten with oppressive silence, and conversation is a chance to assert dominance.
Director Alice Troughton gives us similar glimpses of private moments unwittingly revealed, from showing us through glass doors the way Sinclair chastises Bertie for not living up to expectations and bringing the young man to tears, to Bertie’s stream-of-consciousness chatter to Liam that unwittingly drops clues to the mystery of Sinclair’s latest, and long delayed novel. Throughout, there is the sense of seeing what is not meant to be seen, of unseen eyes everywhere watching uninvited, an unease reflected in the artwork with which professional art curator Hélène has filled the house and grounds. It is curated, but not cohesive. It is as enigmatic as Hélène herself, impassive of expression and affect even as she castigates herself for not fulfilling her role as curator by becoming sentimental about the work of an artist she discovered who went on to greatness.
As Liam establishes a shaky rapport with each member of the family, the reasons for the ci-mentioned dynamics come to light, and if his respect for Sinclair as a person wanes, his need for his professional approval grows. Grant has never been better as the author who creates an offensive weapon of his professional standing, and delights, with that smooth civility, in putting everyone around him in his idea of their proper places. Yet there is room for the gnawing insecurity that drives his behavior, too, starting with his own lack of the Oxford education towards which he pushes Bertie relentlessly. McCormack, for his part, brings an absolute assurance to Liam, secure enough of his intellect to swallow with equanimity the indignities large and small lobbed at him by his employers and student. It makes for a mighty reckoning when Sinclair manages to pierce that certitude.
THE LESSON is a sharp consideration of the overwhelming compulsion to write, as described by Sinclair in one of the online videos Liam watches of him, and of the consequences that arise when that is thwarted. If there is a flaw here, it is that the writing is more diffuse than it should be for this to be as riveting as it could have been. Still, it is a subtle but powerful film full of unexpected intrigues and ruthless violence that is no less destructive for being virtual.