‘The Lesson’ Review: Carefully Taut

A tense standoff between two writers kindles familial fireworks in this wittily self-aware melodrama.

By Jeannette Catsoulis

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No one is quite what they seem in “The Lesson,” Alice Troughton’s winking literary mystery whose languid summer setting — a swanky estate in the English countryside — hides coldly destructive secrets.

The seemingly innocent arrival of Liam (Daryl McCormack), a hunky recent graduate hired as a live-in tutor to the son of the celebrated author J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant), almost immediately causes ripples in the family’s strained dynamic.

Sinclair, a pompous control freak, is struggling to finish a novel so long delayed that his fans fear he has retired. His son, Bertie (Stephen McMillan), is smart and snotty, jaggedly rebuffing Liam’s patient attempts to coach him to take the entrance exams for Oxford University. (Honestly, he should fit right in.) Then there’s Sinclair’s wife, Hélène (Julie Delpy), an art curator so coolly, seductively enigmatic that at least one of Liam’s assignments is immediately predictable.

Unfolding with a tonic intelligence and a slow accretion of menace, Alex MacKeith’s screenplay is smoothly in sync with the specific skills of each performer. Grant is magnificent as a cruel, past-his-prime genius burdened by terrible guilt over an earlier family tragedy, and Delpy — well, can any actor express so much with a single, withering look? Or persuade us that experiencing cunnilingus is no more exciting than having a pedicure?

Yet in an atmosphere as chilly as the lake that lurks on the property, it is Liam — played by McCormack with open-faced guile — who intrigues. Drinking heavily and scribbling in a notebook when everyone’s asleep, spying on the family while concealing his long obsession with Sinclair, Liam gains a trust he doesn’t deserve. In this den of deceit and desperation, it’s never quite clear who is manipulating whom.

The Lesson
Rated R for Delpy en déshabillé and Grant on his knees. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes. In theaters.

The Lesson

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