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Nathan Weinbender reviews "The Lesson"

NATHAN WEINBENDER:

We’re introduced to the British novelist J.M. Sinclair (played by Richard E. Grant) in a flurry of cheeky interviews and masterclass lectures, wherein he dispenses bits of advice along the lines of “good writers borrow, but great writers steal.” This will become something of a mantra throughout The Lesson, a single-location drama about a dysfunctional family and an interloper, and it’s the sort of twisty potboiler that would inspire incredulous scoffs from an elitist like Sinclair.

He’s a prolific author in the vein of Ian McEwan, whose brittle character studies are the rare sort that earn critical raves and make the bestseller charts. He’s also a source of obsession for an aspiring writer named Liam (played by Daryl McCormack), who can’t believe his luck when he’s called to tutor Sinclair’s teenage son Bertie as he prepares for his college exams.

The Sinclairs live in a country manor that has the airlessness of a museum, and it’s full of priceless art curated by Sinclair’s wife Hélène (played by Julie Delpy). Liam moves into the guest house and immediately begins an antagonistic relationship with Bertie (played by Stephen McMillan), who’s really only an academic prospect because of his name. He resents his parents for comparing him to his older brother, a golden boy whose recent suicide has made the atmosphere inside the house all the chillier.

As all of these already precarious relationships work themselves into a tangle, we’re wrapped up in a plot that involves a secret computer server, a manuscript of dubious origin, at least one affair and several betrayals, and shocking behavior that’s performed conspicuously in front of windows so that they can be surreptitiously observed by others. This is the sort of low-stakes thriller in which we’re always supposed to be wondering what each character’s ulterior motive is, because every decision they make could be a potential maneuver for power.

Grant was born to play a self-serving, smarmy guy like J.M. Sinclair; no one is more convinced of his genius than he is. McCormack is convincing as a dewy-eyed fanatic, but less so as some kind of mastermind. In order for us to totally buy into the movie’s mystery, the role of Liam requires an actor with a hum of menace, and McCormack is a bit too soft around the edges.

Liam has seemingly perfect recall, and we suspect that his ability to memorize sonnets, poems and facts about classical composers will pay off in the story. It’s also fitting for a movie whose screenplay is so rigorously schematic, and that develops characters who are less like human beings than pieces in a dramatic chess game.

There’s a point when Liam has inveigled Sinclair into reading his own manuscript, and Sinclair, in a deliberate attempt to wound Liam, compares his work derisively to "airport fiction." I’m not sure if this is a twinge of self-aware irony on the film’s part, because airport fiction is exactly what The Lesson is: it’s twisty, a tad lurid, mostly implausible, enjoyable in the moment and kind of forgettable in the long run.

For Spokane Public Radio, I'm Nathan Weinbender.

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Nathan Weinbender is a film critic and one of the regular co-hosts for Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM on KPBX and Saturdays at 1 PM on KSFC.

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  • On this week’s show, Dan Webster, Nathan Weinbender, and Mary Pat Treuthart will be discussing a pair of films that are small enough to pass right by many movie fans without so much as a murmured response. One is “The Lesson,” a neo-noir involving literary theft, and the other is “L’immensitá,” an Italian-language film starring Penelope Cruz as a mother whose love for her children is the main thing holding her marriage together.