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Early on in this dreary would-be psychological thriller, the literary mandarin J.M. Sinclair, played by Richard Grant, shares with an interviewer his observations on the writing life. “Now, average writers attempt originality. They fail. Universally. Good writers have the sense to borrow from their betters. But great ... great writers ... steal.” He then breaks into a cocky grin and laughs wheezily, like Mutley on “Wacky Races.” I’m sure not on purpose; I trust Mr. Grant has been fortunate enough to have never been exposed to that cartoon.

The adage that Sinclair paraphrases may have, um, originated with T.S. Eliot or with Igor Stravinsky, who applied it, of course, to composers. And it’s a not entirely untrue and not entirely un-useful aperçu. Still, if you’ve been writing for a long time, even in the relatively unheralded trenches of criticism, you’re likely sick of hearing it. God knows I am. In any event, Sinclair’s observation, aside from adding dimension to his character (not a particularly interesting dimension, given how tired is his pet observation), also serves as, speaking of phrases we all ought to be thoroughly tired of, a kind of Chekhov’s Act-One-Gun for the plot.

“The Lesson,” directed by Alice Troughton from a script by Alex MacKeith , aspires to be high-toned but only gets to the peak of a cliché slag heap. The ostensible protagonist is Daryl McCormack ’s Liam, first seen being interviewed himself, speaking of his first novel, about a ruined patriarch trying to reassert power over his fraying realm. In a flashback, the unpublished Liam is summoned by “The Agency” (not the C.I.A.) to audition for a tutoring gig. Bertie, the son of literary lion Sinclair and his French wife Hélène ( Julie Delpy ), needs a leg up to get into Oxford. Young and pale and poor of attitude, Bertie ( Stephen McMillan ) resists Liam’s friendly suggestions about learning critical thinking and insults the guy at family dinners. Nevertheless, Liam gets the gig, moves into the family’s palatial manor (this is a world in which literary mandarin status still pays big), and starts putting Post-It notes on his mirror; observations on the family that he hopes will feed a literary work of his own.

The Sinclairs are one of Tolstoy’s unhappy families; an older son, Felix, committed suicide by drowning himself in the manor lake a few years back. In another excerpt from a public interview, J.M. gets into a snit when asked about his son’s death. Among other things, the tragedy seems to have blocked J.M.

Hélène takes to Liam to the extent that she wants to hire him directly, cutting out “The Agency.” In this movie, no one has ever seen any other movies, so Liam thinks this is an excellent idea. And he also very gladly signs an NDA. We also learn that the window of Liam’s room—which had once belonged to Felix (and the house does appear to have a lot of rooms, so why Liam’s been boarded in such a grief-weighted space doesn’t make much sense but go on)—looks directly into Hélène and J.M.’s bedroom, and one night Liam watches while J.M. performs cunnilingus on his wife. “Don’t do that, dude,” I said to the screen as this happened. “This is a border from which you cannot step back.” Oops, then Hélène sees him watching and smiles. “You’re in it now, pal,” I said to the screen. But honestly, I wasn’t that concerned.

Because, come on: this is one of those movies that goes on for an hour and forty minutes because someone doesn’t have the common sense to get the hell out of Dodge twenty minutes in. When J.M. asks to read Liam’s novel-in-progress and offers his own work for Liam’s delectation, the subsequent comparing notes session goes poorly, and Liam contrives to get some of his pride back, helped by an explosive (or so the movie hopes) discovery.

When all the dominoes fall, it’s so neat, so pat; there’s no credibility, and with that gone, any opportunity for emotional resonance goes pffffft as well. Some might expect this picture to be redeemed by juicy performances, but that’s not the case; while none of the performers phone it in, the script gives them only the most commonplace ideas and states to convey. “The Lesson” is a wash. 

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Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here .

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The Lesson movie poster

The Lesson (2023)

Rated R for language and some sexual content.

102 minutes

Richard E. Grant as J.M. Sinclair

Julie Delpy as Hélène Sinclair

Daryl McCormack as Liam Sommers

Stephen McMillan as Bertie Sinclair

Crispin Letts as Ellis

  • Alice Troughton
  • Alex MacKeith

Cinematographer

  • Anna Patarakina
  • Paulo Pandolpho
  • Isobel Waller-Bridge

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film still featuring Daryl McCormack and Richard E Grant in The Lesson

The Lesson review – amusing but contrived literary thriller about family tragedy and vengeful ambition

A charismatic young tutor comes to help a tragedy-stuck family in a bookish drama that’s fun and smart, but not entirely convincing

H ere is a brittle and contrived but rather elegant Brit thriller about literary paranoia from debut feature screenwriter Alex MacKeith and director Alice Troughton, herself a cinema first-timer having had much acclaim working on TV. The upscale and sophisticated mise-en-scène is rather French; Julie Delpy has a role here and looks quite at home.

Richard E Grant plays JM Sinclair, a bestselling, sharp-tongued author who gives roguish interviews repeating the old maxim that good artists borrow but great ones steal. He is married to art collector Hélène (Delpy) and they live in a handsome country estate with extensive grounds and a lake. But Sinclair, usually so prolific, has retreated to a haunted creative silence following the tragic death of his elder son; the parents are now concerned with moody and mercurial younger boy Bertie (Stephen McMillan) who needs to be coached to get a place at Oxford to read English.

And so they engage a live-in tutor to give lessons: this is Liam (Daryl McCormack), whose charm engages his employers. Liam finds himself having dinner with the family wearing borrowed clothes belonging to the dead son. But more painfully still, Liam admires Sinclair because he is a would-be author himself, and tremulously shows him his first novel in manuscript – with calamitous results.

I enjoyed the “lesson” scenes here, especially when Liam has to provide a reading list. (My reading list for this film would be: John Colapinto’s About the Author , Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot, Rebecca F Kuang’s Yellowface and James Hadley Chase’s Eve.) As for McCormack, he has the same screen presence he showed playing opposite Emma Thompson in the comedy Good Luck to You, Leo Grande – a not dissimilar role, in fact. Yet here he has to be angry, vengeful and infatuated, and the role certainly tests his emotional range pretty severely. Well, it’s hard not to be upstaged when matched with Richard E Grant in full flight. An amusing essay in conceit and revenge.

  • Drama films
  • Richard E Grant
  • Julie Delpy

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‘The Lesson’: Sharp literary drama curdles into melodramatic mush

Great performances by richard e. grant, julie delpy and daryl mccormack initially elevate this british thriller about the writing life.

the lesson movie review nytimes

What makes an ending? That question looms large in “The Lesson,” in some ways intentionally, in other ways not.

Impeccably acted — by Richard E. Grant, Julie Delpy and Daryl McCormack in the main roles — the initially combustible story fizzles out in melodrama. This literary thriller revolves around a pair of writers: Grant’s prickly J.M. Sinclair, considered the most revered author in England but facing a bit of a block as he puts the finishing touches to his latest work, and McCormack’s Liam Sommers, a novice writer making a living as a tutor while he struggles to finish his first novel, in longhand. When Sinclair’s sexy yet neglected wife, Hélène (Delpy), hires Liam, who wrote his thesis on Sinclair, to prepare their sullen teenage son Bertie (Stephen McMillan) for his upcoming Oxford entrance exams, it looks like sparks will fly.

And so they do. The arrangement Liam has just walked into involves Grant’s stern paterfamilias coping with, as it turns out, not just a surly adolescent and a chilly wife, but a family rendered dysfunctional by profound loss.

That’s not a spoiler. The film opens with Liam giving an interview about his debut novel, which is described in just that way — as the story of a “brooding patriarch presiding over a grief-stricken family” — as the interviewer asks Liam where he got the idea for it. “The Lesson” is his answer, told in flashback.

Good writers borrow; great writers steal, as Sinclair says over and over in the film, capably directed by Alice Troughton, a director of TV series making her feature debut. (Apparently, first-time screenwriter Alex MacKeith took that maxim to heart. The line comes from T.S. Eliot.) And accusations of literary theft figure prominently here, after Sinclair and Liam trade manuscripts one day, each asking the other to read his work. For the great author, it’s a request for proofreading; for Liam, it’s a chance to get advice from his brilliant artistic hero.

Liam is no slouch in the brains department. But when he speaks his mind too freely, daring to critique the ending of Sinclair’s novel, it opens up a fissure in their once-frosty relationship, which had started to thaw into a kind of warm mentorship. Strong feelings are stirred, and secrets percolate upward in this tense and warily unhealed household, like bubbles through the water of the lake that lies at the bottom of the garden, in which Liam has been forbidden to swim.

So far, so good. Delicious, even. The first two acts of the “The Lesson” are a delicate dish of ambition, pride, resentment, feelings of failure and other spicy emotions. The cast is flawless, down to Crispin Letts as the Sinclairs’ butler: tightly wound and tight-lipped, with the ability to keep secrets of his own, as you will learn.

But just as Sinclair seems to have missed the mark with the ending to his book, at least in the eye of Liam, so too does “The Lesson” — initially so full of suspense, cagey maneuvering and surprise — take a turn for the obvious, devolving into a tale of a taboo love, sexual jealousy, betrayal and violence.

Echoing Liam’s review of Sinclair’s work in progress, I’d call the first two acts of the film cleverly constructed, fresh and fascinating, yet marred by a climax and conclusion that are unworthy of what came before. If there’s a lesson here, in a marvelous movie that curdles into easy mush, it’s that endings — or at least the great ones — are hard.

R. Area theaters. Contains strong language, some sexuality, brief nudity and smoking. 103 minutes.

the lesson movie review nytimes

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‘the lesson’ review: richard e. grant and julie delpy are in top form in an exquisite sun-drenched noir.

Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, Alice Troughton's feature debut is a sly take on art and ego.

By Caryn James

Caryn James

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The Lesson

Alice Troughton ‘s first feature is a jewel, an exquisitely made chamber piece with Richard E. Grant as J.M. Sinclair, an acclaimed novelist on his way down, Julie Delpy as Helene, his art-curator wife, and Daryl McCormack as Liam, a would-be novelist who idolizes Sinclair. With a clever script that keeps us off guard, the setting of a gracious country estate whose sumptuous visuals mask a dark undercurrent, and a score that entices us into an increasingly unsettling world, The Lesson is a small delight.

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Liam is writing a thesis on Sinclair, which Sinclair doesn’t know about. Helene knows but hired him anyway. Whether that is because of or despite his secret agenda is something she keeps to herself for much of the film. Sinclair himself is a roaring ego of a man, given to pompous pronouncements in interviews, such as “Good writers borrow, great writers steal,” a variation on a line most often attributed to Picasso, sometimes to T.S. Eliot or others. Thief that he is, Sinclair never bothers to suggest he has pilfered the line. Literary theft is just the most obvious element of the mystery that slowly comes into play.

When Liam arrives at the Sinclairs’, we settle into a world of ease and luxury, a great light-filled house with rolling lawns and a faithful butler (Crispin Letts) — a Downton Abbey without the aristocrats or money problems. It is the idealized image of a modernized English country house; you wouldn’t guess that the actual location was in Hamburg. There is even a lake on the grounds, but that is where the Sinclairs’ older son drowned himself, the first clue to the story’s tragic undertow.

It doesn’t take long for the conflicts to set in, although in true well-bred fashion they are cloaked in enigmatic smiles. The actors are as wily as the script, gradually letting us see their characters’ true natures. Much of the film focuses on Liam. McCormack, who has made strong impressions already in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande and Bad Sisters, creates another charismatic figure here. Liam is sympathetic in some ways, dressed in a tee-shirt when he might have known better in this household, struggling to catch up to the classical music references the family so naturally toss around at dinner. But he is also a voyeur and definitely up to something as he circles around his literary hero. We don’t even know if he can write. He works on a novel that he wants Sinclair to read, in longhand in a bound notebook from start to finish, apparently without any revisions. Who writes like that?

Sinclair works on a computer, with a printer and backup that don’t function as well as they should, leading him to enlist Liam’s tech help. Sinclair is so self-absorbed, so hard on his son and so dismissive of his wife, that we suspect he has some secret agenda of his own, especially when he asks Liam to take a look at his latest work and agrees to read Liam’s in exchange.

Throughout, Delpy makes Helene a serene presence, saddened by grief for her older son, concerned for Bertie, yet also a sexual magnet for both her husband and the tutor. She glides through the estate with a beatific smile, another illusory touch.

Troughton, who has directed for British television, brings a tone of supreme self-assurance to the film, expertly guiding its twists and darkening turns. And she drops in a few witty touches, including a scene in which the 1956 noir movie Yield to the Night plays in the background of a conversation and the camera closes in on a woman with a gun. Clue or red herring or neither?

Under its elegant surface, The Lesson takes on heavy issues of art, inspiration, classism, sexism, betrayal and revenge in one beautiful, impressive little package.

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Review: Literary scheming will only get you so far. So endeth ‘The Lesson’

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“Average writers attempt originality,” declares Richard E. Grant’s fictional acclaimed author J.M. Sinclair — more than a bit smugly — in the prologue to “The Lesson.” “Good writers have the sense to borrow from their betters. Great writers steal.”

Adhering to Sinclair’s philosophy, this neo-noirish literary thriller cribs rather liberally from other examples of the genre, from Ira Levin’s “ Deathtrap ” and Stephen King’s “ Misery ” to the more recent “ Intrigo: Death of an Author ,” with above-average results.

Enlisted to tutor the renowned writer’s teenage son, Bertie (Stephen McMillan), at their idyllic, sun-drenched family estate, aspiring scribe Liam (Daryl McCormack) figures he’s landed a dream gig.

But as he preps the sensitive young Bertie for his entrance exams at Oxford, Liam soon realizes that the Sinclair household harbors more than its share of dark family secrets, starting with the tragic drowning of another son, Felix, several years earlier.

A man swims in a lake by a wooden pier.

As tensions between the creatively impotent Sinclair and his French artist-wife, Hélène (Julie Delpy), grow more palpable, it becomes apparent to Liam that he isn’t the only one with a hidden agenda.

The always-up-for-anything Grant (who made an Oscar-nominated impression as hard-living Lee Israel confidant Jack Hock in Marielle Heller’s “ Can You Ever Forgive Me? ”) plays Sinclair with an ideal blend of pretention and barely contained desperation.

He proves well matched with handsome Irish actor McCormack, recently cast as Emma Thompson’s attentive male escort in “ Good Luck to You, Leo Grande .” Liam’s wide-eyed, eager-to-please demeanor serves as a handy front for some decidedly more calculated deeds.

Together the pair proceed to smudge the dividing line between mentor and protégé, while Delpy’s tight-lipped Hélène patiently keeps to the sidelines, awaiting the perfect opportunity to contribute a wily plotline of her own.

In her handling of a screenplay by Alex MacKeith, British TV director Alice Troughton (“Doctor Who”) has done her homework, tapping into Hitchcock and Polanski for stylistic, elegantly photographed inspiration. Meanwhile, MacKeith’s script takes a page from Patricia Highsmith when it comes to character dynamics and matters of social climbing .

Those influences can’t help but draw unfortunate attention to the predictability of a story that could have benefited from one more twist, especially during a languid third act, which needed to ratchet up the tension by several notches.

But in the thoroughly capable hands of Grant, Delpy and McCormack, whose interplay has been playfully choreographed to the 1-2-3 tempo of a waltz-infused score by composer Isobel Waller-Bridge (Phoebe’s sister), the film proves as pleasingly undemanding as a typical summer read: neither a legit page-turner, nor easy to put down.

‘The Lesson’

Rating: R, for language and some sexual content Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes Playing: Starts July 7 at Landmark Theatres Sunset, West Hollywood; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood

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the lesson movie review nytimes

‘The Lesson’ Review: A Fine Cast Classes Up a Barbed, Brittle Literary Melodrama

Richard E. Grant and Daryl McCormack are writers mutually feeding off each other in a diverting chamber piece that doesn't shy from some recycled ideas.

By Guy Lodge

Film Critic

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The Lesson

Films about fictitious great writers often stumble when it comes to the character’s actual writing: Viewers must suspend disbelief that a lofty literary reputation has been built on the purplest of screenwriter-devised prose. A blackly comic melodrama in which writerly ego, ambition and insecurity do increasingly destructive battle, “ The Lesson ” gets around that trap by folding questions of authorship into its arch country-house mystery: Who is writing what, and to what extent it matters, are the questions that keep director Alice Troughton and screenwriter Alex MacKeith’s mutual debut feature interesting, even as it slides into occasional, overheated cliché.

A self-proclaimed prologue — kicking off a cutely apposite if mostly ornamental chaptered structure — introduces young writer Liam Sommers (McCormack) at a promotional Q&A for his acclaimed debut novel. “What exactly is it that drew you to tell this story?” asks the interviewer. Rather than taking the banality of the question as a cue for a “Tár”-like satire of toadying in the arts, “The Lesson” instead answers it with a brisk cut to the relatively recent past.

But something feels off from the moment he arrives at the property’s imposing iron gates, and not just because Sinclair — not altogether unusually for a brilliant, isolated novelist — turns out to be an aggressively frosty misanthrope. His wife, highbrow French art curator Hélène (Delpy), is scarcely much warmer, but more accommodating of the outsider: At her behest, Liam is treated as part of a profoundly unhappy family, joining the table for their terse, awkward dinners together, in the very seat once occupied by Bertie late older brother, who died by suicide some years before. Yet there’s more to the Sinclairs’ collective misery than meets the eye, and if that sounds like a setup for a good novel, Liam agrees — as he begins noting observational details on Post-it notes that he ill-advisedly leaves on his bedroom mirror. (MacKeith’s characters are all booksmart but movie-dumb.)

“Good writers borrow but great writers steal,” says Sinclair (not the kind of man to easily reveal his first name) on more occasions than is required for viewers to understand its narrative significance. Liam may be filching from his employers’ lives for inspiration, but Sinclair isn’t averse to a little creative larceny himself — not least when, thawing to his polite admirer, he invites Liam into the writing process for his long-awaited new novel, which is proving oddly hard to finish. Grant, ideally cast, plays Sinclair’s braying, stentorian self-regard to the hilt, prompting viewers to wonder just how much of his reputation is down to talent and how much to bullish entitlement. It’s a grandiose performance well-tempered by McCormack’s more clear-eyed cool, revealing more cunning to Liam’s deference as the film goes on.

If it’s the conclusion of Sinclair’s novel that causes all the trouble — Liam notes that its final third feels like the work of another author altogether — it’s perhaps more meta than intended that the film’s own third chapter goes slightly awry in its tonal shift, with multiple latent hostilities finally coming to the surface in overly predictable, near-farcical fashion. Yet there’s a high irony threshold to the performances, as well as to Troughton’s glassy, reserved direction, that keeps the careering script in check. The filmmaking continually balances broad gestures with finer ones: Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score is prominently discordant, but countered by the restraint of Anna Patarakina’s canvas-toned lensing. “The Lesson” feels an edit or two away from its best form, but that kind of becomes the joke.

Reviewed at Soho Screening Rooms, London, June 8, 2023. (In Tribeca Film Festival — Spotlight Narrative.) Running time: 103 MIN.

  • Production: (U.K.-Germany) A Bleecker Street presentation in association with Moin Film Fund Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein, UK Global Screen Fund, Film Constellation of a Poison Chef, Egoli Tossell, Jeva Films production. (World sales: Film Constellation, London.) Producers: Camille Gatin, Cassandra Sigsgaard, Judy Tossell, Fabien Westerhoff. Executive producers: Andrew Karpen, Kent Sanderson, Martin Heberden, Jens Meurer.
  • Crew: Director: Alice Troughton. Screenplay: Alex MacKeith. Camera: Anna Patarakina. Editor: Paulo Pandolpho. Music: Isobel Waller-Bridge.
  • With: Daryl McCormack, Richard E. Grant, Julie Delpy, Stephen McMillan, Crispin Letts. (English dialogue)

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Movie Review: ‘The Lesson’ provides a spicy literary thriller

This image released by Bleecker Street shows Daryl McCormack in a scene from “The Lesson.” (Anna Patarakina/Bleecker Street via AP)

This image released by Bleecker Street shows Julie Delpy, left, and Daryl McCormack in a scene from “The Lesson.” (Anna Patarakina/Bleecker Street via AP)

This image released by Bleecker Street shows Richard E. Grant in a scene from “The Lesson.” (Anna Patarakina/Bleecker Street via AP)

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The egos are as vast and thorny as the gardens on the lush estate of a prominent author in “ The Lesson ,” an entertaining and erudite chamber piece about a master, a tutor and a family after loss.

This is a story that, in different hands, could have easily turned maudlin or melodramatic, but director Alice Troughton, writer Alex MacKeith and composer Isobel Waller-Bridge opted instead for wry lightness within the construct of a slow-burn thriller. It’s as though “The Lesson,” and everyone involved, is winking at the audience through the serious material that lingers, intentionally, on the fine line between pretentious and provocative.

Daryl McCormack , of “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” and “Bad Sisters,” plays Liam Sommers, an aspiring writer who has accepted a job tutoring the son of world-famous author J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant), who also happens to be his literary idol. But the film begins with Liam on a fancy stage, being interviewed about his novel about a fading patriarch and a grief-stricken family that the moderator calls one of the most striking debuts of the year. The movie is a memory prompted by that very standard interview question: What was your inspiration?

Anyone in the business of asking artists questions about inspiration knows, on a certain level, that at best you’re only getting a very brief version of one person’s highly sanitized truth. At worst it’s just a plausible sounding fabrication, safely constructed in the rearview mirror. J.M. Sinclair, in the YouTube interviews that Liam watches on repeat, coyly speaks about how all great writers steal but he’s not one, you imagine, who would publicly own any thievery. He is as precious about the singularity of his works and his talent as, in his words, the average writers who attempt originality and “fail universally” and the good writers who have the “sense to borrow.” But it all helps to plant the seed that you’re about to watch a literary heist unfold, though perhaps not the one you might expect.

This photo provided by Scholastic Inc. shows the cover of “When We Flew Away: A Novel of Anne Frank Before the Diary,” written by best-selling author Alice Hoffman. (Scholastic Inc. via AP)

The Sinclair family is the picture of upper-class posturing, with a household staff and a feigned formality fitting of someone who is always in control of the narrative, even at the dinner table in the company of only his son, Bertie (Stephen McMillan), and wife, Hélène (Julie Delpy). When he queues up Rachmaninoff as their dining music and Bertie protests, he challenges his son to give him three good reasons why — a snobbish test that only shuts down the conversation. It’s also quite the introduction to an author whom Liam has worshipped. Never meet your idols, etc, etc.

Liam is ostensibly there to help Bertie, a quiet and tortured Chalamet-type, prepare for entrance exams to study English literature at Oxford. But he has his own motives too — he’s writing a thesis about Sinclair and at work on his own book. Why would a family that insists on a nondisclosure agreement and utmost discretion hire someone with such a glaring conflict of interest? Well, that’s just one of the many mysteries for the audience to navigate in this maze of secrets, shame and scandals, including the somewhat recent suicide of the eldest Sinclair boy who was, it’s suggested, a more promising writer than Bertie.

McCormack, Grant and Delpy are a deliriously captivating group to watch. Grant, so adept at comedy, is prickly and terrifying as this intellectual tyrant who is unafraid to crush anyone in his path with casual cruelty, as when he asks Liam for help because he’s “not a real writer.” And McCormack once again excels at playing a shrewd, underestimated outsider. Liam has a few Tom Ripley talents up his sleeve that he uses to his advantage at key moments.

As Liam says of Sinclair’s newest book, the third act in the film feels like a bit of a jarring departure from the fun escalating tension of the first two acts. But “The Lesson” is worth a watch as a tightly crafted film made by and for adults unafraid of some rhododendron metaphors and casual Tchaikovsky talk.

“The Lesson,” a Bleecker Street release in theaters Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for “language and some sexual content.” Running time 104 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

MPA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr .

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The Lesson Reviews

the lesson movie review nytimes

Takes a while to get going but this neo-noir grows more engaging once it gets into gear. Daryl McCormack holds his own against veterans Richard E. Grant + Julie Delpy.

Full Review | Original Score: 3.5/5 | Dec 22, 2023

the lesson movie review nytimes

McCormack, Grant and Delpy waltz with flair in this stylish if unoriginal slow-burn thriller. Best consumed with a large glass of red wine and one’s tongue in one’s cheek.

Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Dec 12, 2023

the lesson movie review nytimes

Not quite a bestseller [...] but definitely not airport fiction either.

Full Review | Dec 2, 2023

the lesson movie review nytimes

Although the hero of the piece is ostensibly Sommers, played with subtle shades of Tom Ripley by Good Luck to You Leo Grande’s McCormack, the standout, inevitably, is Grant, who’s on fire here as the domineering patriarch.

Full Review | Nov 15, 2023

the lesson movie review nytimes

The Lesson manages good which is damning with faint praise, because it could have been great.

Full Review | Nov 2, 2023

… takes its sweet time to get to the really juicy content, but it’s so very entertaining once it kicks in that the restlessness of the build-up is worth it.

Full Review | Original Score: 15/20 | Oct 27, 2023

The film results in tremendous entertainment. [Full review in Spanish]

Full Review | Oct 5, 2023

Troughton’s film is an overheated, overly theatrical melodrama...

Full Review | Original Score: 2/5 | Sep 29, 2023

the lesson movie review nytimes

Despite an intriguing first half, The Lesson can’t quite keep up with its own ambitions. There’s much to admire here – namely the performances – but the ending leaves you wanting more. Make of that what you will.

Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Sep 28, 2023

the lesson movie review nytimes

Director Alice Troughton and writer Alex MacKeith over-egg pretty much everything, leaving the story feeling slightly unconnected. But the sinister vibe is terrific.

Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Sep 26, 2023

Add in a tantalising score by Isobel Waller-Bridge and crystal clear cinematography from Anna Patarakina, and this beautiful British film makes you want to open a bottle of red wine and a mature cheddar.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Sep 26, 2023

the lesson movie review nytimes

... A movie that loves its actors and bounces buoyantly from scene to scene on the thrilling chemistry they provide.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Sep 25, 2023

There are some witty lines but the plot doesn’t veer far from its well-trodden path.

Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Sep 25, 2023

The feature debut from accomplished TV director Alice Troughton is a neatly atmospheric piece...

Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Sep 24, 2023

The title of The Lesson reveals little about its plot and likewise, this film noir maintains its mystery throughout, maintaining ambiguity right to the very end on who exactly is schooling who.

Full Review | Original Score: 3.5/5 | Sep 22, 2023

As a scratchy string quartet for the four actors, it continues to work surprisingly well – you might hand it back with a B+ in that department. But as a storytelling assignment, it droops little by little into the C zone.

Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Sep 22, 2023

Grant’s patrician hamminess is mildly entertaining (for a while), but Delpy’s talents are largely wasted on a rubbish Machiavellian subplot.

Full Review | Original Score: 2/5 | Sep 21, 2023

If you’re ready to accept it as glorified pulp fiction, Alice Troughton’s film might keep you moderately entertained, but it’s too far-fetched to go higher than that.

The Lesson starts out competently enough, but collapses late on into absurd melodrama.

Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Sep 21, 2023

the lesson movie review nytimes

With a host of fine performances and an engaging narrative, The Lesson is a real breath of fresh air, and one of the most watchable films of the year so far.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Sep 21, 2023

The Lesson: Richard E. Grant is delightful as a vain novelist in this serviceable literary thriller

A young tutor gets caught up in a wealthy family’s secrets and lies in this entertaining country house drama, featuring a star turn from Richard E. Grant as a duplicitous writer.

25 September 2023

By  Lou Thomas

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An auspicious debut feature for both director Alice Troughton and screenwriter Alex MacKeith, The Lesson ’s chief selling point is its performances. Richard E. Grant’s delightfully conceited turn as novelist J.M. Sinclair and Julie Delpy’s icy resolve as his wife Hélène always compel, even as certain naggingly-familiar themes and plot points surface.

Handsome young Irish writer Liam (Daryl McCormack) is hired to tutor Sinclair’s son Bertie (Stephen McMillan) at their beautiful family country estate. Clever, emotionally distant Bertie needs to get into Oxford to appease his parents – but mostly his father. Liam’s daily tutelage culminates with progress reports to Hélène and dinner with the Sinclairs soundtracked by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. A traumatic event – their older son Felix drowned in the garden lake years before – is mentioned early on and predictably becomes crucial in the final act. 

Sinclair, feted for his first novel, has evidently spent years agonising over the completion of his second and eventually brings in Liam to help, though not to write, but act as an accomplice in an act of professional theft that recalls Morvern Callar (2002). Some viewers will spot this development coming early on, much as Liam’s late-night sighting of Sinclair performing cunnilingus on Hélène might suggest that Liam and her will be sexually involved. Sinclair’s motto is a version of the old aphorism that “talent borrows but genius steals”. This could be a joke about plagiarism or literary influence more broadly, given how the sentiment is sometimes attributed to Oscar Wilde but most likely derived from a poem by T.S. Elliot. Here it seems surprising no one calls out Sinclair for stealing that familiar, even hackneyed, phrase and presenting it as his own. Poking holes in sourcing is certainly something that Sinclair, his family members, or Liam would do. 

Grant – Oscar-nominated for his role as a very different literary con man in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) – mastered depicting bitter, angry men of intelligence back in Withnail and I (1987) and here instils Sinclair with just enough humanity for us to sympathise. Delpy’s Hélène, her home filled with exquisite modern art but her own career as an artist shelved in service to her husband, keeps her own bitterness beneath a steely exterior and biting wit. The younger actors fare just as well. McCormack, as reliably poised and charismatic as he is in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande or Bad Sisters (both 2022), and McMillan, believable as poor Bertie living under a horrible weight of parental expectation, have less flashy roles but also convince. It’s not always novel, but this literary thriller offers plenty for fans of fine acting, dry humour and films that grapple with the dark side of familial wealth. 

 ► The Lesson  is in UK cinemas now. 

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‘The Lesson’ Review: Richard E. Grant & Daryl McCormack Are the Best Parts of This Turbulent Thriller

With stellar performances across the board, especially from Richard E. Grant, there is a willingness to forgive this film's narrative shortcomings.

If there is a lesson of its own to take away from the thriller that is The Lesson , directed by Alice Troughton and written by Alex MacKeith , it is that less can often be more. Some of the most authentically tense films are those that rely on ratcheting up the tension and never overplaying its hand. Think of how Michael Haneke ’s enduring 2005 film Caché just kept withholding much of its particulars which were integral to creating its sense of dread. Even in moments of confrontation, the way it teased out a growing unease that was also more grounded ensured we could never look away from the panic playing out before us.

There was ephemeral violence, yes, but it was tied to the more eternal terror that comes from observing lies slowly collapsing around people. When you then have talented actors to embody the characters who find themselves caught up in this more subtle descent into destruction, the experience that is crafted can be even more shattering than one built around spectacle. There are echoes of this in The Lesson , which had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival , though they nearly become drowned by a conclusion that threatens to wash its strengths away entirely. And yet, a more than capable cast manages to weather most of its persistent narrative storms to make for a well-acted thriller where you hang on every single word the characters utter that still never quite reaches the full potential of its story.

This all begins with an author talk where we meet Liam Sommers ( Daryl McCormack ) being asked about a book with a particularly revealing story that he has written. It is an opening that is the first of a couple of different moments which, while never living up to this comparison, felt a bit reminiscent of last year’s titanically good TÁR . The difference to it is that this conversation is the furthest into the future the story will get, making it one of many films that strives to create a sort of dramatic irony via forced narrative framing when, more often than not, this would have been far more impactful had it been revealed at the end. Regardless, we then jump back in time to learn about how Liam is an aspiring author who has recently gotten a gig that his agent all but tells him he has to take. Specifically, he will go to work for famed author J.M. Sinclair ( Richard E. Grant ) and his wife Hélène ( Julie Delpy ) by tutoring their son Bertie ( Stephen McMillan ) for his upcoming exams. He will do so at their estate that, as the wealthy are wont to do, is shut off from the rest of the world. The stage is then set as we come to see that all is not well with the Sinclairs following a loss that has brought into focus existing fault lines. The naive Liam then finds himself caught up in their domestic discord.

RELATED: The Greatest Movie Drunk Was Allergic To Alcohol

'The Lesson' Is Most Thrilling When Playing Everything More Subtly

The first two-thirds of the film are where this thriller is at its best. Seeing McCormack, a younger actor who was spectacular in last year’s Good Luck to You, Leo Grande , and Grant, a veteran performer who is great in just about everything including the recent Can You Ever Forgive Me? , begin to circle each other is just proper fun. Each brings a real verve to their respective characters, making it easy to get swept up in piecing together their motivations even as the escalations start to get a bit out of hand. McCormack embodies a cautious yet sly inquisitiveness, making Liam's trait that he can remember nearly everything he has read a fitting one as we can feel him taking everything in. He is charming and charismatic in a manner that seemingly begins to win over the family. Grant as the Sinclair patriarch is his perfectly menacing opposite, a cruel man who has too won over the adoration of readers just as he instills a fear in his own family. An early dinner scene where he swoops in without saying much of anything before dictating the music they must listen to is delightfully dreadful.

Of course, this is merely the first course of what becomes a full melodramatic meal for Grant to sink his teeth into and chew up until there is not a morsel of the scenery he has not consumed. Just the leering look in his eyes or the echo of his laughter makes him more of a vulture than a man, willing to feast upon even his own family if it were to come to that. Delpy, always a dynamic performer even in small moments, captures the impact this has had on the matriarch in every deflection she must do. As Liam goes about his tutoring and eventually assists Sinclair with his latest book, the discoveries he begins to make bring everything to a breaking point. The longer the film stays in a sweet spot of subterfuge, with every stolen glance across the isolated estate and barbed remark carrying with it a potential for conflict, the more the film has us in its spell even as closing stumbles nearly breaks it all into pieces.

The Ending of 'The Lesson' Nearly Loses the Plot

All of this to say, without going too far into the particulars, it is a film that thrives in its uncertainty and falters when it ultimately arrives at a more concrete, cliché conclusion. It effectively flirts with being an erotic thriller without fully diving in and dances with more existential questions about the nature of authorship before dulling this intrigue with a rather blunt ending. Its cast all keep it afloat, but only just. It would make for an interesting double feature with the Glenn Close film The Wife , but disclosing the precise reasons as to why would be to reveal too much. There is something fascinating about how the film, a thriller about storytelling that itself ends up hinging upon the writing of an ending, threatens to come apart as it approaches its own closing. That it holds together is a testament to the cast who it feels like are battling against clumsy escalations that go bigger and louder when the quieter moments carry with them a far more tactful deployment of emotion. Had it been more patient in its conclusion, it might have been as great as the ending written in the world of the film.

The Lesson is in theaters starting July 7.

  • Cast & crew
  • User reviews

The Lesson (2023)

A young author takes a tutoring position at the estate of a legendary writer. A young author takes a tutoring position at the estate of a legendary writer. A young author takes a tutoring position at the estate of a legendary writer.

  • Alice Troughton
  • Alex MacKeith
  • Richard E. Grant
  • Julie Delpy
  • Daryl McCormack
  • 23 User reviews
  • 54 Critic reviews
  • 62 Metascore
  • 2 nominations

Official Trailer

  • J.M. Sinclair

Julie Delpy

  • Hélène Sinclair

Daryl McCormack

  • Liam Somers

Stephen McMillan

  • Bertie Sinclair

Crispin Letts

  • Interviewer
  • Felix Sinclair
  • All cast & crew
  • Production, box office & more at IMDbPro

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Did you know

  • Trivia The rodents of unusual size that feature in the film are called coypu
  • Goofs Liam rips up the manuscript of his novel and throws the pages in the lake, where they float on the surface. In the next scene at the lake, there are no traces of the pages on the water's surface. Given the number of pages it's likely that at least some of the manuscript would still be floating in the water.

User reviews 23

  • Sleepin_Dragon
  • Sep 28, 2023
  • How long is The Lesson? Powered by Alexa
  • September 22, 2023 (United Kingdom)
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  • Jul 9, 2023

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  • Runtime 1 hour 43 minutes

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Movie Review: ‘The Lesson’ provides a spicy literary thriller

The egos are as vast and thorny as the gardens on the lush estate of a prominent author in “the lesson,” an erudite chamber piece about a master, a tutor and a family after loss starring richard e, article bookmarked.

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The egos are as vast and thorny as the gardens on the lush estate of a prominent author in “ The Lesson,” an entertaining and erudite chamber piece about a master, a tutor and a family after loss.

This is a story that, in different hands, could have easily turned maudlin or melodramatic, but director Alice Troughton, writer Alex MacKeith and composer Isobel Waller-Bridge opted instead for wry lightness within the construct of a slow-burn thriller. It’s as though “The Lesson,” and everyone involved, is winking at the audience through the serious material that lingers, intentionally, on the fine line between pretentious and provocative.

Daryl McCormack , of “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” and “ Bad Sisters ,” plays Liam Sommers, an aspiring writer who has accepted a job tutoring the son of world-famous author J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant), who also happens to be his literary idol. But the film begins with Liam on a fancy stage, being interviewed about his novel about a fading patriarch and a grief-stricken family that the moderator calls one of the most striking debuts of the year. The movie is a memory prompted by that very standard interview question: What was your inspiration?

Anyone in the business of asking artists questions about inspiration knows, on a certain level, that at best you’re only getting a very brief version of one person’s highly sanitized truth. At worst it’s just a plausible sounding fabrication, safely constructed in the rearview mirror. J.M. Sinclair, in the YouTube interviews that Liam watches on repeat, coyly speaks about how all great writers steal but he’s not one, you imagine, who would publicly own any thievery. He is as precious about the singularity of his works and his talent as, in his words, the average writers who attempt originality and “fail universally” and the good writers who have the “sense to borrow.” But it all helps to plant the seed that you’re about to watch a literary heist unfold, though perhaps not the one you might expect.

The Sinclair family is the picture of upper-class posturing, with a household staff and a feigned formality fitting of someone who is always in control of the narrative, even at the dinner table in the company of only his son, Bertie (Stephen McMillan), and wife, Hélène (Julie Delpy). When he queues up Rachmaninoff as their dining music and Bertie protests, he challenges his son to give him three good reasons why — a snobbish test that only shuts down the conversation. It’s also quite the introduction to an author whom Liam has worshipped. Never meet your idols, etc, etc.

Liam is ostensibly there to help Bertie, a quiet and tortured Chalamet-type, prepare for entrance exams to study English literature at Oxford. But he has his own motives too — he’s writing a thesis about Sinclair and at work on his own book. Why would a family that insists on a nondisclosure agreement and utmost discretion hire someone with such a glaring conflict of interest? Well, that’s just one of the many mysteries for the audience to navigate in this maze of secrets, shame and scandals, including the somewhat recent suicide of the eldest Sinclair boy who was, it’s suggested, a more promising writer than Bertie.

McCormack, Grant and Delpy are a deliriously captivating group to watch. Grant, so adept at comedy, is prickly and terrifying as this intellectual tyrant who is unafraid to crush anyone in his path with casual cruelty, as when he asks Liam for help because he’s “not a real writer.” And McCormack once again excels at playing a shrewd, underestimated outsider. Liam has a few Tom Ripley talents up his sleeve that he uses to his advantage at key moments.

As Liam says of Sinclair’s newest book, the third act in the film feels like a bit of a jarring departure from the fun escalating tension of the first two acts. But “The Lesson” is worth a watch as a tightly crafted film made by and for adults unafraid of some rhododendron metaphors and casual Tchaikovsky talk.

“The Lesson,” a Bleecker Street release in theaters Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for “language and some sexual content.” Running time 104 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

MPA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.

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Screen Rant

The lesson review: grant & mccormack are calculated writers in gripping thriller.

You’ll find you can’t get enough of this tantalizing world, with its incendiary commentary on originality, inspiration, and what makes good writing. 

The Lesson has one of the best opening scenes of the year, and it gets even more exquisite from there. Although the film broadcasts how the story will end, there are still plenty of twists and turns that will surprise and unsettle you. Directed by Alice Troughton from a screenplay by Alex MacKeith, The Lesson is a mystery/thriller that will leave you watching with bated breath. The story unfolds at a steady pace, and the characters, each of whom is manipulative in their own way, are exciting, the mystery lush and introspective. You’ll find you can’t get enough of this tantalizing world, with its incendiary commentary on originality, inspiration, and what makes good writing.

Liam Somers (Daryl McCormack) is a tutor and short story writer whose resume impresses Helene Sinclair (Julie Delpy) enough to hire him for the summer to tutor her son, Bertie (Stephen McMillan). Bertie is a budding writer who needs to get into Oxford lest he disappoint his father, J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant), a successful author who’s in the midst of finishing his latest novel. The death of his son Felix, a talented writer who would have gone far, hovers over the family. When Liam is asked to read Sinclair’s latest book in exchange for notes on his own novel, his first, their relationship dynamic shifts, and Liam is surprised to learn quite a few secrets, as well as what it takes to write a compelling novel.

The script is clever. Even though it occasionally plays into type, MacKeith’s fascination with writing, with what makes a good story, and what it takes to get it, is engrossing. Troughton’s directing builds tension by turning the film into a game of betrayal, the need to uncover the truth less interesting than the character dynamics and the way their actions affect the story. The thematic throughlines are fantastic, and the payoff is nearly as thrilling as the buildup itself, which is a difficult feat to pull off considering the suspense that permeates the film from the start. The film’s conclusion is remarkably satisfying and gives us much to ponder about after all is said and done.

What makes a good author? How do you measure great writing, and what are you willing to do to make a successful comeback? The Lesson ponders these questions rather thoughtfully, filling the story with a sense of desperation and dread, resentment, and underlying anger. If the movie was a novel, it would certainly be considered a page-turner. Once it gets going, and does so right from the start, you won’t be able to look away. There’s a sense of elitism on Sinclair’s end; he’s an author who considers himself one of the greats, and his ego is huge. And yet he’s threatened by new talent, opting to put Liam and Bertie down instead of mentoring them. His relationship with everyone is strained, and the intensity never abates, building to a climactic third act that earns its moment.

The Lesson not only has a tremendous, eerie score by Isobel Waller-Bridge, but contains phenomenal, understated performances from its cast. Richard E. Grant is simultaneously restrained and unhinged in his role, wielding Sinclair’s bitterness and arrogance like a sword as he lashes out, slowly unraveling as the film goes on. Grant casts a powerful shadow over everything, controlling and manipulating everyone around him, but gives Sinclair room to unravel. Daryl McCormack (who was in last year’s acclaimed Good Luck To You, Leo Grande ) is able to balance outward respectability with eagerness and frustration. It’s nuanced and tempered, and the outcome of his performance benefits the finale greatly, and he expertly bounces off of Grant’s portrayal. Delpy, though she gets less to do, plays the long game in terms of Helene’s role. She’s distant and seemingly cold, but she’s patient and calculated as well, and it’s lovely to witness the myriad of emotions that swiftly play across her face.

The Lesson is gripping and compelling, enhanced by its cast and score. It knows precisely what kind of movie it is and, though at times predictable, has much to say and a sophisticated, unpretentious style to go along with it. The film lays bare its intentions while keeping some of its cards close. It’s the kind of movie you could spend hours discussing; it will linger on your mind as you dissect everything that occurs. The Lesson is an indelible film, and one that will only be enhanced by a second watch.

The Lesson is now playing in theaters. The film is 102 minutes long and rated R for language and some sexual content.

The Lesson Review: Richard E. Grant Mesmerizes in Taut Thriller

A tutor (Daryl McCormack) falls under the spell of a renowned writer (Richard E. Grant) and his wife (Julie Delpy).

A British tutor and aspiring writer learns dark secrets when hired to teach a renowned author's troubled son. The Lesson simmers with palpable tension and an eerie sense of foreboding. Taut performances from a distinguished cast are accompanied by a fantastic score. Alice Troughton, known primarily for her television work, is brilliant in her feature directorial debut. She crafts an engrossing narrative on the ugliness of human nature that will keep you guessing to a disturbing climax.

The Lesson is told in five parts. The prologue begins with Liam Sommers (Daryl McCormack) sitting for an interview in front of a rapt audience. His first novel has propelled him to stardom. The Interviewer (Tomas Spencer) asks Liam what inspired his riveting story. Liam pauses while carefully gathering his thoughts.

Part One has Liam going through the motions of a struggling writer. His attention strays to a video of the same interviewer on stage with his idol. J.M. Sinclair ( the great Richard E. Grant ) is a titan of literature. His novels are held in the highest regard, but Sinclair hasn't released a new book in many years. The Interviewer is keen for any advice the sage can give to young writers. Sinclair laughs slyly before offering two nuggets of wisdom. There are no more original thoughts. Every writer is a thief who steals for a living.

Richard E. Grant as J.M. Sinclair

Liam is overjoyed at his next assignment. He will tutor Sinclair's teenage son for his entrance exam to Oxford. Liam travels to a lush estate in the beautiful countryside. He marvels at the grounds and mansion but gets a rude introduction. Liam won't be staying in the residence. The butler, Ellis (Crispin Letts), escorts Liam to a guest house with a view of Sinclair's office. The unwelcome treatment continues to his new pupil. Bertie (Stephen McMillan) scoffs at his teacher with open distaste. He doesn't need or want Liam's help.

Hélène (Julie Delpy), Sinclair's beguiling art curator wife, offers the only warmth. She appreciates Liam's services. He's come highly recommended. Hélène stresses that Bertie must get into Oxford to please his father. Her French and American education are of no use to her son problems. Liam should get started immediately, but must first sign an ironclad non-disclosure agreement and employment contract.

Related: Exclusive: Julie Delpy Talks Film Noir, Misogyny, and The Lesson

Liam meets the revered Sinclair at dinner. The patriarch lords over the table while playing Rachmaninoff. Liam feels like a fool for knowing the composer's history but not the music. He gets his first taste of Sinclair's domineering personality and harsh rebukes. Liam peers through his window later. Sinclair writes vigorously through the night. His long overdue book must be a masterpiece. Liam's furious he can't keep up the pace, but his attention shifts once Hélène enters her husband's office to seductively spark creativity.

A Stellar Open

The Lesson holds its cards close in a stellar open. What exactly is happening in the Sinclair household? You also don't have a clue about Liam. Is he a reliable narrator of the story? Liam's an equally unknown commodity with a very special gift. He has an uncanny ability to remember verbatim everything read. Liam also puts notes on his mirror to remind him of any mishaps. He won't make the Rachmaninoff mistake again. Liam will be an expert for the next conversation.

The plot thickens like syrup in an engrossing second act. Liam gets better insight to the family's dynamics. Sinclair is supremely arrogant and narcissistic. He cherishes being put on a pedestal. Bertie struggles to meet his demanding father's expectations, but warms up to Liam in unexpected ways. Hélène remains the most enthralling mystery. Liam falls under her spell while browbeaten by her husband. Sinclair is a cruel taskmaster. Yet Liam cannot tear himself away from anyone. He's snared in their collective grip. Liam must know what really lies beneath the Sinclairs' surface.

Related: The 15 Most Recognizable Movie Scores

Troughton shows considerable skill. The entire film takes place at the estate. She explores palace intrigue with a deft touch and slow boil. Liam is a servant at the beck and call of his masters. But he's also ingratiated himself and become indispensable to their needs. The question than arises about Liam's intention. What does he expect to gain? Does Liam lust after Hélène or crave recognition as a writer from her husband? Troughton teases masterfully before big reveals. The answers will surprise you.

What Lies Beneath the Surface?

Composer Isobel Waller-Bridge ( Emma, The Phantom of the Open ) is integral to the film's success. Her escalating dance of piano and violins accompanies the plot like a shadow over its shoulder. She changes tempo as intentions become clear. What had been a steady walk turns into a sprint. Her contribution is awards-worthy. She may achieve the recognition of her younger sister, Fleabag star and creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge .

Richard E. Grant owns this film in another amazing performance. He's damn good as a man with everyone in his clutches. Sinclair is both magnetic and detestable. Grant marvels with his extraordinary range. The Lesson stands on great pillars. The acting, direction, and music are sublime.

The Lesson is a production of Poison Chef, Egoli Tossell, and Jeva Films. It will be released theatrically on July 7th from Bleecker Street .

Wherever I Look

Wherever I Look

The Lesson (2023) - Movie Review and Summary (with Spoilers)

Posted: July 8, 2023 | Last updated: December 20, 2023

General Information

What is “the lesson” rated and why.

“The Lesson” is Rated R for:

  • Dialog: Some cursing
  • Violence: Attempted murder
  • Sexual Content: mild nudity (male backside) and seeing oral performed on Helene
  • Miscellaneous: Smoking, drinking, and topic of suicide

Film Summary

This content contains pertinent spoilers. Also, images and text in this post may contain affiliate links. If a purchase is made from those sites, we may earn money or products from the company.

Liam, a highly educated young man who tutors as he finishes his first novel “Tower 24,” finds his latest assignment to be in the household of J.M. Sinclair. At one time, Sinclair was a literary sensation, but between a 5-year absence and it being nearly two years since his eldest son committed suicide, many thought he had retired. This isn’t true; he is working on a novel, “Rose Tree,” but that isn’t why Liam is at his house.

The reason Liam is at his house is because Helene, J.M’s wife, wants her younger son, Bertie, to get into Oxford, and Liam comes highly recommended. But, as time wears on, Liam’s position in the house evolves – sometimes by his own doing and curiosity, but also due to the desires of others.

Character Descriptions

Please Note: This character guide is not an exhaustive list of every cast member, and character descriptions may contain what can be considered spoilers.

Liam is accomplished academically and works with an agency where he often tutors the children of the upper class so they can get into universities like Oxford while he works on his long-gestating novel, “Tower 24.”

  • The actor is also known for their role in “ Good Luck To You, Leo Grande .”

J.M. Sinclair

At one time an acclaimed author, it seems Sinclair has come to the point where he has run out of things to say. But, as he makes clear many times over, he isn’t against borrowing or stealing the work of others as a means to get the job done.

  • The actor is also known for their role in “ Dom Hemimgway .”

Helene is an art curator who, after the death of her eldest, put her life on pause to care for and be there for her youngest son, unlike how she was for her oldest.

  • The actor is also known for their role in “ The Bachelors .”

Bertie is someone trying to get into Oxford and likely doesn’t need Liam’s help beyond regaining the confidence that J.M. has worked his entire life to strip away.

Ellis is the butler of the Sinclair household.

Our Rating: Positive (Worth Seeing) – Recommended

Notable Performances or Moments

How it uses beats to give you time to ponder & question.

Often, when the focus becomes looking at the scenery, peering at how someone’s home is supposed to represent them, or we watch a mundane act like seeing Liam swimming, it can feel like filler. However, with “The Lesson,” each beat, each moment that slows things down seems made to give you time to process the development or reveal of a relationship.

Why is Helene so strange towards her husband and has no issue with Liam watching her and her husband have sex? Is there some weird power dynamic thing where J.M. needs to seem dominant around company? The official story is Felix, J.M. and Helene’s eldest, killed himself, but is that true?

In giving you space to think about these topics, you can see there is no intention to overwhelm you but rather treat this film like a book. Hence it has three parts, a prologue, and an epilogue, with you sometimes wishing you could rewind to double-check something.

How It Evolves Into A Fascinating Mystery With Immensely Complicated, Yet Sometimes Subtle, Relationships

Originally, you are led to believe the idea here is that Liam is going to tutor Bertie and slowly build a rapport with J.M. That does happen, but Helene isn’t to be discounted, nor is Ellis – the butler. As Helene builds her own relationship with Liam, you are pushed to wonder about the secrets of J.M.’s estate.

It is noted they pay for isolation for a reason and are fine with the caveat of inconsistent electricity. As the film goes on, you can see J.M. is an insufferable narcissist and how that has worn down on everyone, as he pushes them away with cruel comments, with even Felix used for fodder, while also trying to bring them back in, thus causing an abusive cycle.

So as Liam learns the truth about J.M., Helene reveals part of her reason for hiring Liam, and then you are pushed to wonder if Ellis is a major player or knows nothing at all? This becomes a mystery that doesn’t do as “ Knives Out ” or many others, which seek to be over the top, excessively long, or potentially complicated, but rather leave you to truly ponder, want to examine interactions yourself, and use the aforementioned beats to think of theories and cross your fingers you are right.

Recommendations

If you like this movie, we recommend:

Check out our movies page for our latest movie reviews and recommendations.

Why Did It Take J.M. Sinclair 5 Years To Finish His Book?

Because he stole the book from Felix’s computer and struggled for at least a year to write an ending because Felix’s book was unfinished.

Why Did Helene Hire Liam?

She hoped he could help reveal the truth about Mr. Sinclair’s book, later wanting him to write a better ending and ultimately free her from her husband.

What Led To Felix’s Suicide?

A combination of Felix’s mental health issues and his father’s verbal abuse.

“The Lesson” is like a well-crafted book adaptation that knows when to progress the story and when to give its audience time to reflect, theorize, and then press on.

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‘The Color Purple’ Tips Its Hat to Classic Black Musicals

The new movie has so many references to Hollywood gems like “Stormy Weather” and early jazz shorts, it can be viewed as a Black film syllabus.

On a glossy stage with big white steps behind them, two women in dresses hold hands and sing.

By Robert Daniels

Even when Hollywood saw little use for Black performers other than as mammies and butlers, the musical genre, a storytelling mode composed of magical realist fantasy and hoofing artistry, provided space for Cab Calloway, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge to manifest their glamorous glow. Through rapturous songs, sung in resplendent gowns and tailored tuxedos, the promise of Black liberation was heard.

The genre’s possibility for emancipation is showcased in the latest film version of “The Color Purple,” whose origin derives from a story of perseverance and sisterhood that first found acclaim in 1983, when its author, Alice Walker, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Within two years of Walker’s success, Steven Spielberg directed an acclaimed big-screen adaptation of her novel. By 2005, a staged musical of “The Color Purple” appeared on Broadway. Now, the Ghanaian filmmaker Blitz Bazawule is shouldering the book’s legacy, directing a cinematic adaptation of the Broadway musical.

‘The Color Purple’ | Anatomy of a Scene

The director blitz bazawule narrates a sequence from the musical, featuring a performance by taraji p. henson..

“My name is Blitz Bazawule. And I’m the director of ‘The Color Purple.’” [SNAPPING] “So, this scene is where Shug Avery, played by the incredible Taraji P. Henson, performs at the juke joint for the very first time. Her character’s enigmatic. We’ve been hearing about her throughout. And we haven’t seen her perform yet. And so, Dan Laustsen my DP, and I, knew that this was a moment that would have to register in the audience’s mind as a moment of coming out, of sorts. My production designer, Paul Austerberry also really suggested that we do this practically and not on stage. And so, we found a swamp that we had to drain. It takes two months to drain out and two months to fill back up. But we drained it out to build the actual juke joint. And so, what you’re seeing is Shug actually performing in a juke joint on location. And what was special about this was, also, it gave my choreographer, the incredible Fatima Robinson, the opportunity to really shine. And it took us about two weeks of rehearsals to figure out just the blocking for this. A lot was going to be going on. A lot of storytelling was going to be happening. And a lot of bodies were going to be moving in this space.” “(SINGING) Push the button.” “(SINGING) Push the button.” “(SINGING) Push the button.” “It was very important that the blocking was right. It was also very important that we gave Taraji an opportunity to shine in this moment. She actually sung the song herself. She’s not dubbed. This is actually her voice. She took vocal lessons to make sure she got this one right. And it was incredible because it was all believable for her in the space, performing this song in real time. This is where it gets special, when the lights go out. And we find ourselves in darkness. Now, for me, this is a moment that also allows the dance break to be a special moment. The song is a bit long. So, we knew that we didn’t want the audiences just sitting through a redundant setup. So, I remember coming in to set one day much earlier. And the lights were — the environmental lights were on. And the blue light started to bleed through. I said to myself, I think that’s it. If we can go from light to darkness this way. I think we could have something special.” “Ooh, it ain’t over yet, y’all.” “Now, ladies.” “What?” “I need you to work a little harder, O.K.?” “The other thing that was special about this moment is the ending, when we find out that Shug Avery has actually chosen Celie and not Mister. So, there was a lot of storytelling. Even though it’s a big dance number, there’s still a lot of storytelling going on. So, by the time we find out that she’s kind of made this choice, it’s too late for Mister. Mister has been waiting. He’s spent all this time, expecting that Shug Avery would come to him at the end of this performance. And he would be the beneficiary of all of this amazingness that’s happened. And somehow, she kind of just sneaks past him and goes to Celie. And that’s a big emotional and romantic moment in this film. And I think that it was really special. And I love the look on Colman’s face when the realization hits him. It’s like, wow, all this for nothing.” [CHEERS]

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Bazawule’s “Color Purple” aims to grant Celie (Fantasia Barrino-Taylor) the kind of interiority that makes visible her resiliency against abject trauma. Raped during childhood by the man she thought to be her father, then separated from her children — the results of his assault — Celie is forced into marriage with the abusive Mister (Colman Domingo). Her sister, Nettie (Halle Bailey), bids goodbye, departing to Africa. Mister’s son Harpo (Corey Hawkins) and his wife, Sofia (Danielle Brooks), become Celie’s only friends. But a chance at real love arrives when the sultry singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), Mister’s old flame, returns to town. Shug and Celie’s developing physical attraction, along with Nettie’s letters, allows Celie to create grand worlds in her head.

Celie’s boundless imagination mirrors the continued influence of what Bazawule called “the universal Black cadence,” how an ordinary shuffle or a game of patty cake can become a song. That practice imbues “The Color Purple” with an inventiveness to empower Celie’s story, positioning the arts as an important language for resistance and a necessary tool for Black people to be more than vessels for trauma.

“I think music gives Celie the kind of agency we’ve never seen her have before,” Bazawule said during an interview at the Mandarin Oriental in New York.

Early Black musicals like “Porgy and Bess” and “Swing!” are examined in Arthur Knight’s book “Disintegrating the Musical: Black Performance and American Musical Film.” His analysis is drawn from W.E.B. DuBois’s belief that music is an essential element of Black identity. The control of that gift, therefore, is crucial, and the musical — as a locus for song, fashion and romance — becomes a strategy against the oppression faced by Black people across America.

By visualizing Celie’s inner thoughts and her yearning for independence, Bazawule not only retools the genre’s language of resistance. He also provides audiences with an integral Black film syllabus.

“Our work is only understood most clearly when it’s part of a continuum that is built. It’s a language,” Bazawule said. “But you have to know the language to understand what we’re doing.”

Bazawule’s influences on the film are varied, including more contemporary musicals like “Idlewild” and “Dreamgirls,” the drama “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and studio-era musicals like “Hallelujah” and “Cabin in the Sky.” The 1932 musical short “Pie, Pie Blackbird” is another reference.

The larger-than-life sets used in Aubrey Scotto’s jazz short, “A Rhapsody in Black and Blue” (also 1932), come to mind during a moment of romantic whimsy shared by Celie and Shug. When Celie sings “Dear God — Shug,” she imagines her and Shug on a giant, spinning gramophone. Rather than wholly relying on computer-generated effects, the production designer Paul D. Austerberry sought to marry fantasy with reality by constructing an actual 22-foot diameter record and an enormous needle arm.

The tension rises during the film’s lustful juke joint scene. For this sequence, not only does Shug arrive in grand style — on a barge floating across a swamp — but the costume designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck also fashioned Shug’s red dress to mirror the allure of Dorothy Dandridge in “Carmen Jones.”

“I wanted Shug to look sexy,” Jamison-Tanchuck said.

In a nod to the diverse rhythms in the Black diaspora, the choreographer Fatima Robinson orchestrated the scene’s varied dancers, bedecked in dazzling suits and luscious dresses, to use Daggering, a sizzling Jamaican dance.

“I wanted to create moves where we touch each other and we hold each other,” said Robinson. “It’s something I feel, as Black people, we don’t see enough.”

Celie’s imaginative bid for freedom peaks when she and Shug abscond to the Capitol Theater in Macon, Ga., where they watch “The Flying Ace” (1926). As they view the film, Celie’s mind conceives of a lavish Art Deco ballroom recalling the 1943 musical “Stormy Weather,” which starred Horne. There’s an orchestra dressed in white tail tuxedos (a reference to Calloway), but instead of the high-flying Nicholas Brothers splitting down the steps , Celie and Shug descend toward each other. While the scene takes place in Celie’s mind, its fantastical setting doesn’t render her feelings or Shug’s reciprocation any less real. The power of the musical genre is in its ability to make any person, no matter her background, the captain of her world.

For Bazawule, who remembers selling CDs on the street to afford tickets to art house theaters in New York, Celie’s cinematic escape from oppression has deep personal resonance.

“I figured if Shug could bring Celie into that world, it would open her mind,” he said.

The Cultural Significance of ‘The Color Purple’

Alice walker’s 1982 novel about the experiences of a poor black woman in the american south is a monumental work that has taken many forms..

 Book: “What makes Miss Walker's exploration so indelibly affecting is the choice of a narrative style that, without the intrusion of the author, forces intimate identification with the heroine,” our critic wrote of the novel , which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 .

 Anatomy of a Scene: The director Blitz Bazawule narrates a scene from the musical, featuring Taraji P. Henson performing as the dynamo Shug Avery .

 1985 Movie: Steven Spielberg looked on the sunny side of the book , with an adaptation that launched the screen career of Whoopi Goldberg and introduced Oprah Winfrey in her first movie role.

2005 Musical: The Tony-winning Broadway production was a box-office smash. “The show's creators have fashioned a bright, shiny and muscular storytelling machine that is above all built for speed,” our critic wrote after its debut .

2015 Revival:  A new version of the musical starring Cynthia Erivo  and Jennifer Hudson won praise for staging a slimmer and beguilingly modest production that displayed deep power within its restraint .

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