Here is a brittle and contrived but rather elegant Brit thriller about literary paranoia from debut feature screenwriter Alex MacKeith and director Alice Troughton, herself a cinema first-timer having had much acclaim working on TV. The upscale and sophisticated mise-en-scène is rather French; Julie Delpy has a role here and looks quite at home.
Richard E Grant plays JM Sinclair, a bestselling, sharp-tongued author who gives roguish interviews repeating the old maxim that good artists borrow but great ones steal. He is married to art collector Hélène (Delpy) and they live in a handsome country estate with extensive grounds and a lake. But Sinclair, usually so prolific, has retreated to a haunted creative silence following the tragic death of his elder son; the parents are now concerned with moody and mercurial younger boy Bertie (Stephen McMillan) who needs to be coached to get a place at Oxford to read English.
And so they engage a live-in tutor to give lessons: this is Liam (Daryl McCormack), whose charm engages his employers. Liam finds himself having dinner with the family wearing borrowed clothes belonging to the dead son. But more painfully still, Liam admires Sinclair because he is a would-be author himself, and tremulously shows him his first novel in manuscript – with calamitous results.
I enjoyed the “lesson” scenes here, especially when Liam has to provide a reading list. (My reading list for this film would be: John Colapinto’s About the Author, Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot, Rebecca F Kuang’s Yellowface and James Hadley Chase’s Eve.) As for McCormack, he has the same screen presence he showed playing opposite Emma Thompson in the comedy Good Luck to You, Leo Grande – a not dissimilar role, in fact. Yet here he has to be angry, vengeful and infatuated, and the role certainly tests his emotional range pretty severely. Well, it’s hard not to be upstaged when matched with Richard E Grant in full flight. An amusing essay in conceit and revenge.
• The Lesson is released on 22 September in UK cinemas.