The directorial debut of Alice Troughton, The Lesson, penned by Alex MacKeith, tells the story of Liam (Daryl McCormack), a tutor who is hired by prestigious writer JM Sinclair (Richard E Grant) and his wife, art curator Hélène (Julie Delpy), to help their son Bertie (Stephen McMillan) get into Oxford. An aspiring writer himself, Liam is keen to help Bertie with his education and further his own understanding of literature through interacting with Sinclair, but in both endeavours he soon finds himself caught up in the complicated tangle of the Sinclair family’s drama.
Ironically for a flick that so thoroughly explores the concept of writing and storytelling itself, one of The Lesson’s weaker parts is its own writing. Its script is functional, but feels slightly by-the-numbers, lacking narrative bite. It’s also rife with symbolism and recurring motifs, but they are unsubtle in ways that sometimes undermine their own effectiveness, making the story feel a bit too simple in its efforts to add depth.
However, these flaws don’t detract too much from the experience. In fact, the slight inelegance of its structure gives The Lesson an earnest charm that feels appropriate given the subject matter, mirroring Liam’s own fraught attempts to develop as a writer.
From a directorial perspective, The Lesson is a very strong debut for Troughton. The cinematography has a lot of fun with the visuals of light and mirrors, representing how the characters reflect on themselves and in turn see themselves reflected in each other. The soundtrack also plays with the wider themes, with its heavy focus on classical music inviting the audience to dwell on their own perceptions of art and the ways that people engage with it.
The feature also gives its talented cast plenty to work with, its ambitious storytelling providing the perfect narrative space for some powerful, emotive performances. Grant in particular brings some great unhinged heel heat as the egotistical Sinclair, with McCormack providing a subtle but effective foil to his scenery-chewing as the gentle but driven Liam.
The Lesson is a very promising debut, but not a perfect one – its script lacks much in the way of surprises and plays things a bit safer than is ideal. However, the film’s rougher parts imbue it with an odd sense of scrappy sincerity, and the stylish, engaging direction helps to make The Lesson an ultimately satisfying cinematic experience.
The Lesson is released in select cinemas on 22nd September 2023.
Watch the trailer for The Lesson here: