The Lesson: Writers Write

There is a cottage industry around giving phony advice to writers. Writers write. The Lesson starts like that, as Richard E. Grant plays this televangelist of clichéd writing, a supposedly legendary author giving his secrets out in interviews. His son just died and he has this incredible book dedicated to him. There is a hokeyness to all of this and if you’ve read any advice about writing you’ll be side-eying the movie from the word go. It’s all the basic stuff you’ve read online. It’s a bit of a shock then when Daryl McCormack’s Liam turns up idolizing Grant’s J.M. Sinclaire, writing a book with the main character inspired by the famous author. Liam is invited to stay at the writer’s estate and tutor his son for his Oxford entrance exams. While there, Sinclaire’s wife, played by Julie Delpy, begins to take a liking to the young man. The kid under Liam’s tutelage is uninterested. And most curious of all, Sinclaire is keeping a secret.

Alice Troughton’s debut feature, The Lesson, always keeps the viewer staggered one step behind where the story is going, while still instilling confidence in them that they always know where it’s going. This is where it subtly becomes the movie it means to be, one that off-hands the viewer and leads them down a deceptive path where characters change and reveal themselves as the story moves forward. It is a twisty web, good writing about writing, that works best as a chamber character piece where the parties involved all want more than they let on.

The film plays on as a simple noir tale. It’s not outstated in any of its qualities, until a certain event happens, and allows Richard E. Grant to give a deliciously villainous performance here. When that switch flips, Grant emerges as an actor capable of anything. We know he has the goods. This movie is just about strategically waiting for him to deploy them in the right way. It’s hard to pair off with talent like that but Julie Delpy is convincingly up to that challenge. Daryl McCormack is also game and seems to hold onto the screen with a steely seriousness. He is able to convey multiple things at once. He has one of those faces and manners that can convince us he is doing one thing until we see what he is really up to.

The film starts small and feels lightweight until it presents the context that makes those opening parts matter. Saying much more than the premise is spoiling things. It’s not a movie to give away. It’s a movie to watch and feel the changes in the story as they continually reshape why we are here and what the characters are going to do about it. This is an encouraging debut that shows the director’s aptitude in working with a good script to create a layered series of misdirections with multifaceted actors who are up to the challenge. Any writer can learn something here.


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