Liam (Daryl McCormack) is hired to tutor Bertie (Stephen McMillan) to help pass the entrance exams for Oxford as he attempts to finish his long-gestating novel. Bertie's father, JM Sinclair (Richard E. Grant), is a celebrated author working on his latest novel and together with his wife Helene (Julie Delpy), conceal a dark past and a strained relationship beneath the veneer of their sprawling country house and their icy manners...
On paper, 'The Lesson' is exactly the kind of spicy, cerebral cat-and-mouse stuff that critics and sophisticated audiences hungrily eat up at this time of year. There's that vague air of dark academia to it all, with a talented writer plagued by doubt paired next to an overbearing "genius" but soon learning to manipulate his way into the creative process. Yet, 'The Lesson' so often falls victim to tired tropes, hackneyed writing, and obvious choices all round.
The first time we see Daryl McCormack, he's taking off his shirt and exposing his impressive physique. Likewise, Richard E. Grant takes every opportunity to chew up the scenery with his eccentric stiffness, while Julie Delpy has the air of sexy mystery and tragedy surrounding her as she flits through their heavily curated mansion in the country. Oh, and dropped into all this is a subplot about an heir and a spare - one now forced to follow the footsteps of the heir who died in mysterious circumstances. At no point do any of the characters or their performers deviate from what is completely and totally expected of them.
In fact, so much of 'The Lesson' feels rote and tiringly familiar. You can just about guess every twist and turn coming from the story, and the results are never as impressive as you'd hope. Alex MacKeith's script deploys just about every cliche of a writer you can think of, throwing out weak aphorisms like 'Good writers borrow, great writers steal' as if they're some delightful bon mots. For a movie about writers and writing, you'd think it would at least have a better script than this.
To be fair, however, Grant seems to be lapping up the opportunity to play an irredeemable asshole once again and he's having a ball doing it. Daryl McCormack's character is supposed to be somewhat sly and passive, reading people's expectations and giving them what they want. The results, however, are far too opaque for it to have any kind of impact, while Julie Delpy's character feels completely underwritten.
'The Lesson' is a promising concept and it felt as though this could have been a richly decadent thriller. The results, however, are far less so. There's a sparseness to how director Alice Troughton stages a lot of the scenes, not to mention Isobel Waller-Bridge's overbearing score drowning out any kind of atmosphere from it. Though it has some playful moments and a game cast, 'The Lesson' can't help but be compared to better works and come up lacking.