Rather like a light but readable novel, this film is one to sit back and gaze at without too much enquiry. We know when the handsome English tutor, Liam, turns up at the grand estate of writer JM Sinclair and his wife, Helene, that there are secrets within. The estate is imposing but not welcoming, and the butler icily turns him away from the front door and shows him to rooms around the back.
Liam, played by charismatic Irish actor Daryl McCormack (Good Luck to You, Leo Grande), is a brilliant Oxford grad employed by the Sinclairs to tutor their son Bertie (Stephen McMillan), a sulky, awkward teen who has been shortlisted for Oxford. Liam, in private a fan of Sinclair, quotes Shakespeare to Bertie at impressive length. He can remember slabs of quotes and texts because of their beautiful sequence, he explains. It’s a party trick, Bertie sniffs. A handy one.
The film’s aspirations as a literary thriller are signposted when Sinclair, in author mode, shows off before an audience with practised patter about the origins of creativity. An average writer, he declares, attempts originality; a good writer has the sense to borrow something better. And a great writer? “Great writers steal,” he says, and smiles roguishly into the camera.
Sinclair returns to the point later when talking to Liam, who has managed to get his stuck printer working. “Finders, keepers,” he laughs to Liam about who owns words. When Liam picks up the printout, he recognises the phrase “points of light” from a book by UK writer Jeanette Winterson. “Is it research?” he asks.
Weighing down the family is the death of Bertie’s brother, Felix, who drowned himself in the lake while his art curator mother Hélène (Julie Delpy) was in Venice at the Biennale. Sinclair now calls her “the missing mother”, Helene tells Liam.
This not quite the scenario where an outsider invited into a wealthy family inveigles themselves into their affections, one by one. But Liam does become involved in different ways with all three, thinking himself quite the clever manipulator in a house riddled with games.
Richard E Grant excels as the vain and insecure patriarch of an off-kilter family who does not take kindly to criticism. “We are not peers,” he tells Liam, who has dared to comment on his new work.
By the time you realise the film is a hysterical potboiler, it is too late to pull the plug. To its credit, it is highly entertaining, looks marvellous and comes with enough literary trappings to make you feel the engagement was worthwhile.
The Lesson is showing as part of the British Film Festival until November 29.
Your support will help us continue the important work of InReview in publishing free professional journalism that celebrates, interrogates and amplifies arts and culture in South Australia.Donate Here