by Hope Madden
There is something elegantly old school about the slow burn literary mystery afoot in Alice Troughton’s feature directorial debut, The Lesson. Its overt, unyielding structure suggests a familiar, even predictable thriller.
However zealously screenwriter Alex MacKeith subscribes to the traditional three act story, theme stated on page 5 and all that, Troughton and a superb cast still manage to mesmerize you. You’re given every piece of evidence you will need, and yet you’ll wonder ceaselessly where it will all lead.
Troughton’s direction evokes a tense thriller, even though the story itself never feels as if danger’s around the corner. Still, the camera angles and shot choices – gorgeous though they are – leave you on edge. With her creeping camera and gorgeous location Troughton blurs the line between intellectual drama and mystery thriller.
Her stellar cast helps. Richard E. Grant plays renowned writer J.M. Sinclair, whose son Bertie (Stephen McMillan) is in the market for a tutor to help prepare him for Oxford’s entrance exams. Aspiring writer and massive Sinclair fan Liam (Daryl McCormack, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande) gets the job.
Julie Delpy also stars as family matriarch Hélène, whose aloof demeanor strikes the perfect chord against Grant’s vibrance. It would be wrong to say Grant chews scenery, but you certainly can’t look away from him. A charming narcissist, viciously insecure and competitive, his Sinclair is a big presence, which allows the balance of characters to quietly observe, connive even.
McCormack, who was so impressive in the two-person revelation of Leo Grande, delivers another introspective and surprising performance. At times Liam seems to mirror Sinclair’s insecurity and artist’s fragility, but this is not that story.
The conclusion feels a little tidy, but the intricate ballet of character study and mystery that precedes it is so tight you’ll forgive the minor misstep.