Producers: Camille Gatin, Cassandra Sigsgaard, Judy Tossell and Fabien Westerhoff   Director: Alice Troughton   Screenplay: Alex MacKeith   Cast: Richard E. Grant, Julie Delpy, Daryl McCormack, Stephen McMillan, Crispin Letts, Tomas Spender and Joseph Meurer   Distributor: Bleecker Street

Grade: B

Richard E. Grant enlivens any film he’s in, even if his role is small; in this feature debut for both writer Alex MacKeith and veteran television director Alice Troughton (who’s worked on shows as varied as “Eastenders” and “Merlin”), he gets a rare chance to dominate an ensemble, and makes the opportunity count, even if the film, while undeniably elegant and engrossing, proves in the end not quite as clever as it hopes to be.

Grant is J.M. Sinclair, a renowned novelist working to come out of a dry patch following the death of his eldest son Felix (played in a brief flashback by Joseph Meurer), but the character around whom the plot really pivots is Liam Sommers (Daryl McCormack).  Liam is a highly regarded tutor who specializes in preparing students for Oxbridge entrance exams while working on a novel of his own, and when he’s contacted about a job prepping Bertie (Stephen McMillan), the younger son of Sinclair and his wife Hélène (Julie Delpy), he eagerly agrees.  He’s fascinated by the writer, the subject of his thesis, and hopes that the trial period Hélène, an art dealer, arranges with him will lead to a more permanent position that will allow him to become a sort of amanuensis to Sinclair.

The film informs us upfront about how things will work out: Sommers is shown being interviewed before a packed crowd about his successful novel, and being asked about the inspiration for its narrative about a domineering patriarch lording it over his grieving family.  We also see Sinclair in a similar setting, cattily intoning that average writers try to be original (and fail), good ones borrow and great ones steal, before stalking off when the interviewer inquires about how his recent loss has affected his work.  Both responses become integral elements of the plot.

The rest of the film, divided into chapters, amounts to an extended flashback that provides Liam’s answer to the interviewer’s question.  Once hired he takes up residence in the guest house on the handsome estate (a typically English country establishment as presented in Seth Turner’s production design and Anna Patarakina’s cinematography, even if the film was actually shot in the Hamburg region of Germany), directly across from the main house; from his window he can watch the semi-reclusive Sinclair in his office, working deep into the night or enjoying intimate moments with Hélène.  Initially Bertie proves a sarcastic, recalcitrant pupil, alternately arrogant and insecure.  Only gradually does he warm to Liam.  Hélène is quietly authoritative as she watches them in conference outside.  The sole other person around is the scrupulously correct butler Ellis (Crispin Letts).              

The household is clearly under the thumb of Sinclair, who emerges from his study to preside over meals, choosing which classical music will serenade them as they eat and offering scalding observations.  At first he treats Liam with condescension, but gradually opens up somewhat after finding the young man’s computer skills useful, though he turns down an offer to disconnect an unused service in a locked room beside the study.  In time he even asks Liam to proofread a copy of his novel-in-progress and offers to read Liam’s, which he’s laboriously writing in longhand.  But Sinclair’s mood changes when Liam has the temerity to suggest that the final portion of his novel isn’t up to the standard of what precedes it.

Thus far “The Lesson” has easily held one’s interest, helped in no small measure by Troughton’s control of mood, Paolo Pandolpho’s smooth editing and Isobel Walter-Bridge’s canny score.   Now, however, it slides into implausibility as Liam takes the opportunity provided by Sinclair’s sudden decision to drive off to a writer’s conference, taking with him the sole printed copy of his draft novel, to investigate that locked room and put his computer skills to use.  He also employs another of his abilities, alluded to tangentially in his earlier sessions with Bertie, to make himself indispensable to Sinclair in the completion of his book.  Frankly, these machinations undermine the narrative plausibility even though they’re instrumental in revealing the (fairly predictable) secrets in the Sinclair family’s past.  But they pale beside revelations about how they fit into a revenge plan a member of the family has put into effect. 

The cast do their best to sell the final chapter, however, and one can continue to enjoy their work even as confidence in MacKeith’s machinations declines.  Grant seizes the opportunity to go into melodramatic overdrive, but with a twinkle of malicious glee in his eye, as Sinclair’s veneer of control collapses, while Delpy, McCormack, McMillan and Ellis all maintain their air of contrasting reserve. 

And while in the end you might be prone to dismiss the picture as a puzzle with literary pretensions whose pieces click into place all too obviously, you’ll probably admit that it’s been an undeniably engaging one.