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The Lesson ★★★★



Director: Alice Troughton

Starring: Richard E. Grant, Julie Delpy, Daryl McCormack, Stephen McMillan, Crispin Letts

Release: 22nd September 2023

A stellar cast comprising French and English talent, The Lesson is a delightful jeu de mots ripe with psychological intrigue and drama reminiscent of a Chabrol film. Julie Delpy, Richard E Grant and Daryl McCormack intensely intertwine each other in a witty, tense exploration of the dynamics between a tutor, student and their surrounding environs when McCormack’s Liam is enrolled as an English Literature tutor to counsel the son of renowned author, J M Sinclair, in a deliciously toxic role by Grant. Partially inspired by the real-life experience of the film’s writer, Alex MacKeith, in a tutoring job, The Lesson tackles many familial and societal themes reminiscent of The Nest.

Slowly unveiling hidden family mysteries and embracing classic, old-fashioned British horror-thriller tropes, The Lesson is a masterclass in brooding suspense. Director Alice Troughton exercises patient skill in teasing the audience with lingering shadows and long takes on an imposing English countryside estate interspersed with bright scenes of nature and symbolism. Tension is constantly brimming with the uncertainty of psychological terror akin to a Shakespearean plot. The film covers a degree of musicality, with Liam being the interloper penetrating this microcosm and slowly learning the game’s rules akin to a dance. This creates a degree of tension expressed through thinly veiled put-downs and simmering bitterness. The implicit cruelty on display to ensure that Liam knows his place, he is sometimes not invited to join the family at dinner highlights that unconscious bias where everything is in plain sight and yet obfuscated beyond discovery.

The Lesson could be viewed as a study of social strata as Liam, despite his artistic skill and Oxford degree, is still not perceived as an equal by his profession assisting an affluent family. He is effectively treated as ‘the help’. The initial resentment of Bertie is evident, as he is a teenager resisting authority. Still, the acerbic commentary levelled by the writer Sinclair is symptomatic of a privileged, unsympathetic male writer past his prime. Liam admires Sinclair from afar, through windows as he perches on the outside, very much the ‘other’. These scenes are reminiscent of Hitchcock thrillers, which highlighted mirrors and windows as devices for suspense. For Liam, there is always that unspoken threat of being fired, similar to his predecessors and therefore, frustratingly, he has to toe the line despite prejudicial slights. Perhaps these difficulties could have been explored further, but the superficial skimming of the issues provides a riveting segway to dangerously high-stakes pursuits.

Delpy, as the matriarch, Hélène,  is in the role of her life since her star-making role in The Before trilogy. Similar to Isabelle Huppert in a Chabrol film, she is icily reserved. She is interweaving and orchestrating the family dynamics behind closed doors. As Hélène, she depicts the oft-observed long-suffering artist’s wife persona, having sacrificed her career, similar to Glenn Close in The Wife and Lena Olin in The Artist’s Wife. Yet, there is that freshness to the genre and a certain je ne sais quoi with Delpy’s performance that captivates and bewitches those surrounding her as she mesmerises onscreen but equally yields a steely determination. Delpy’s scenes with McCormack are ripe with chemistry, highlighting the enjoyment of slowly watching the development of sexual tension.

McCormack is adept at creating that type of implicit frisson with his older female co-stars after dazzling us all with his impressive turn against Emma Thompson in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. Again, he is charming, personified by that seductive gaze and winning smile. His portrayal of Liam evokes empathy as his initial innocence emerges. Still, the question arises as to whether he can withstand his enthusiasm in a heavily hostile environment. His artistic talent in poetry, song, prose and more showcases an appreciation by Troughton of the creative world and the resilience needed to thrive in a world where one negative piece of feedback can make or break a career. The ability to be devastated but equally enticed by the power and magic of words elicits wonder in the audience vicariously through Liam.

Whilst The Lesson is an understated, anxiety-inducing tale that would operate well as a chamber piece on the stage, the increasing levels of oppressive dread are accelerated by the heavy, doom-forecasting score. Isobel Waller Bridge’s score adds dimension to The Lesson, conveying emotion to accentuate themes and avoiding the reliance on excessive dialogue. Nothing overly dramatic occurs for most of the runtime, which is the appeal of The Lesson as a cerebral, taut thriller that is thought-provoking in its execution and inspires a few gasp-out-loud moments. Its exposure of unexpressed sentiments and the cruel impact of parental dismissiveness and neglect is riveting but equally unsettling.

There is no doubt that this noirish thriller excitedly captures the best elements of the French and English suspense thriller genre. Unfortunately, some absurdist scenes within the third act threaten to unravel all of Troughton’s earlier excellent political insights. Still, it is a fascinating watch that is elevated by the strength of the performances and will appeal to film noir and Dangerous Liaisons fans alike.

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