Alice Troughton has built a formidable career for her work in television dramas. The Lesson is her debut feature directorial, based on a screenplay by Alex MacKeith. The film is designed as a tart, ice-cold literary thriller addressing anxieties around authorship, brittle professional envy, and personal grief wrapped together in ways that should be unpredictable but come off as contrived and a tad too convenient in the placement of its twists. While it remains consistently watchable and gleefully silly, the film’s smartness is undercut too sharply by sudden bursts of revelations and spite that don’t always cohere.

The Lesson  (2023) Plot Summary & Movie Synopsis:

The Lesson opens with an interview event with Liam Somers (Daryl McCormack), basking in the fame of his debut novel. As he is asked what inspired his book – which tells a story about a fading patriarch of a grieving family – the film proceeds to take us to its origins, how it transpired, as well as the characters who populate it.

Liam has a distinction as an English graduate, he is working on his first book. A coaching agency connects him to a tutoring opportunity at the unnamed English estate of J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant), a renowned novelist widely considered to have retired. Sinclair has been one of Liam’s biggest inspirations, whose work also formed the subject of his thesis.

He has been hired to guide Sinclair’s son, Bertie (Stephen McMillan), in his preparation for Oxford entrance examinations. Liam’s first encounter with the family isn’t particularly pleasant, everyone being arch, frosty, and haughtily dismissive of him. Sinclair’s wife, Helene (Julie Delpy), is at least relatively considerate and shows some measures of including him.

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At the first family dinner, things are reserved and testy as an unsuspecting Liam is grilled on his musical taste. He rattles off his general knowledge on the piece of Russian music but finds himself at a loss when Sinclair categorically insists on knowing what his thoughts are about the music. However, his immediate disappointment is quickly swept aside as Liam is asked to sign an NDA about his arrangement with the family, breaking away from the tutorship agency but being very much in their interests.

How does Liam earn the Sinclair family’s trust?

Helene, however, reminds him that he is not here for J.M. though she knows how much he idolizes him, but solely for Bertie’s preparation. Bertie is initially cold to him, almost skeptical of him and his capabilities. He is deeply shocked when Liam demonstrates his photographic memory. He says how words are triggers for him, a single phrase can strike up in him a recall of words read and familiar to him. This does not much allay Bertie’s cynicism, who passes it off as a ‘party trick.’

The window in Liam’s room looks into that of J.M.’s. Liam is often rapt, watching at night, the happenings in the author’s room. He is fascinated and amazed seeing him work into the morning. Suddenly one night, he becomes privy to an intimate moment between J.M. and Helene. Soon, Helene fixes her gaze on the distant-watching Liam as if fuelling his appetite and deriving pleasure from being watched. The narrative returns to this fleeting spark of illicit, unspoken dialogue between Helene and Liam much later and rather cursorily and predictably.

Liam slowly slides into J.M.’s private confidence as he helps fix his printer and, subsequently, an issue with his laptop. He is angling into everyone’s ease and comfort, including Bertie’s. Bertie is astonished at the new techniques and suggestions Liam is advising him to incorporate in his essays. He excitedly shares with his parents how he hadn’t been previously aware that he could forge connections across genres and periods in crafting arguments in his essays. This thrill of discovery pleases him greatly and he gradually grows much warmer to his teacher, more trusting in opening up to him.

Liam learns of the tragedy that rocked the family. Helene gently informs him of two things J.M. doesn’t take kindly to when probed or rather completely shirks discussing. One is his writing, and the second the suicide of their son, Felix, who took his life in the estate lake. J.M. enlists Liam to be his proofreader for his new novel titled Rose Tree. Liam agrees, provided the author also reads his own book and provides feedback. The two strike a deal.

What is the shocking discovery Liam makes?

A still from The Lesson (2023).

Despite repeated suggestions, J.M insists Liam to allow the server in Felix’s now-locked room to keep running as it is. Liam shares his feedback with J.M. on his book, telling how it is fresh and unlike anything he has written, but the final section sticks out like a sore thumb. He advises him to rework it. A visibly effaced J.M. pretends to take it on his chin and proceeds to crush Liam’s confidence as he suggests Liam to be a teacher instead, asserting Liam cannot write at all and that his novel was an utter waste of his time. Liam is obviously deeply upset, and he simmers with a desire for revenge. One day the house is empty but for Liam and Helene.

The two eventually end up sleeping together. She insinuates there must be something in Felix’s room and wonders why J.M. keeps it locked, the key to himself. Liam, who could guess where the key was intuiting from an earlier moment shared with the author, sneaks into the forbidden room and is aghast to find out the novel J.M has been purportedly working on is the work of Felix, available on the computer with its still-active server. Delighted that he can now vindicate himself, Liam deletes the file and steals the hardcopy of the novel from J.M’s study

The Lesson (2023) Movie Ending Explained:

Who emerged as the biggest thief?

J.M, returning home, is horrified when he can no longer find any copy remaining of the book. Liam tells him a virus must have destroyed the servers. He gets a boost of hope as Liam tells him he remembers most of the book verbatim. Immediately he makes Liam start writing it down in longhand, giving cues wherever he can remember. There’s a twist when Helene tells Liam this is what she hired him for — to get to the truth. She commissions him to write the ending to the book.

The film has a hasty, spiraling denouement with a physical fight between Liam and J.M. when Liam concedes all that he has done, including the deletion, disposing of the hardcopy in the lake, and intimacy shared with Helene. The two tumble into the lake. J.M. is severely wounded and gives up in the lake itself when he realizes his wife has turned her back on him. Helene informs Liam of the official version of the events, that her husband drowned in his alcoholism and that Liam himself was not on the estate.

Liam is initially reluctant when Helene rejects his desire to be acknowledged for the ending he wrote in the book credits but agrees, seeing no other alternative. The film ends circling back to Liam’s opening interview, Bertie smiling from the audience, essentially ripping off the events for his debut novel, winkingly acknowledging the most popular adage of J.M: “Great writers steal.”

Read More: The 25 Best Movies About Writers

The Lesson (2023) Movie Trailer

The Lesson (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
The Lesson (2023) Movie Cast: Richard E. Grant, Julie Delpy, Daryl McCormack
The Lesson (2023) Movie Genre: Thriller | Runtime: 1h 43 Mins
Where to watch The Lesson

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