Alice Troughton’s would-be thriller is about a modern literary rivalry. ‘Great writers steal’ is an aphorism used ad nauseam in Alex MacKeith’s script, which apes the country house competition between youth and experience featured in Anthony Shaffer’s classic play and film Sleuth but without the wit, dialogue, character or visual style. It’s a posho story of lost manuscripts, sexual jealousy and family secrets that deals almost exclusively in done-to-death clichés.
Liam Sommers (Daryl McCormack) is an aspiring writer hired to tutor the son of successful novelist JM Sinclair, played by Richard E Grant. Sinclair’s other boy has just been fished dead out of nearby lake, but Sommers immediately decides that a swim is in order, upsetting his hosts so soon after their son’s demise. The cocksure Sommers develops some feelings for Sinclair’s wife Hélène (Julie Delpy) who engages in sexual acts with her husband while posed at the window while the young man looks on as a frustrated voyeur. Sinclair is working on a new manuscript, and doesn’t rate Sommers as much more than a baby-sitter, but complications arise; could Sinclair’s new project be stolen from his own dead son, and if so, would Sommers be justified in stealing it back?
As often in films about writers, writing is nothing more than a McGuffin or an undefined prize to be won; we never get to grips with what the fictional story within a story might be about, and that lack of meaning or definition hobbles The Lesson from the outset. Delpy is barely more than a cypher, McCormack flaunts a toned gym bod that doesn’t suggest a literary career as anything but a cover model, and Grant is, as per usual, so over the top that it’s hard to imagine he’s any kind of writer at all; he gives the usual teeth-clenching performance he gives everything else, including his famous shilling for another dud Star Wars film.
The Lesson’s plot hinges on the protagonist’s improbable ability, established early on, to memorise and regurgitate entire novels verbatim, and the whole of the final act is somehow dedicated to him re-creating a novel which we only know the title of. The Lesson is a stilted, mannered slice of literary rivalry, as slow as a week in the jail and as predictable as a tree. The problem with creating a story about supposedly smart people is that they have to act smart, and these people don’t; The Lesson steals left right and centre, but never makes any great profit from myriad borrowings on show here.
The Lesson arrives in UK cinemas from September 22nd 2023.