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.

The Lesson (2023)

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.