The Lesson movie review: like many an undergrad, this film isn’t as enchantingly clever as it thinks it is

What is it with Daryl McCormack and older women? The Irish actor made his name as the titular toy boy of Emma Thompson’s widow in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande and now he’s making eyes at an uncharacteristically dowdy Julie Delpy in this underripe psychological thriller.

He plays Liam, a handsome and poised young man who’s been hired by Hélène Sinclair (Delpy) as a live-in tutor for her stroppy son Bertie (Stephen McMillan). Bertie simply must secure a place at Oxford, you see.

This straightforward exercise of class privilege is complicated by a recent family tragedy, and the fact that dad (Richard E. Grant) is a renowned author, who casts a long shadow. J.M. Sinclair is such a literary superstar, in fact, that Liam, himself an aspiring author, is also awestruck by his presence. When Liam is allocated quarters with a view directly into J.M.’s office, he becomes ever more entangled in the family’s dynamic, observing his idol, not only at work on a long-awaited new novel, but also at play, during Mrs Sinclair’s nightly conjugal visits (because this family is filthy rich, yet apparently can’t stretch to a pair of curtains?).

McCormack is actor enough to conjure an air of sultry enigma from his underwritten role, and the fact that the script calls for him to take his shirt off several times probably doesn’t hurt either. The bigger issue is with the Sinclairs. This family is neither twisted enough in their perversions, nor baroque enough in their decor choices, to hold our attention while we wait for the mystery to unfurl. Even Richard E. Grant — in reality, a raconteur for the ages — has been reduced here to an imperious old-timer and issuer of such hackneyed pseudo-wit as “Good writers borrow, great writers steal”.

That’s borrowed too, of course. The original is usually attributed to T.S. Eliot or sometimes Picasso, but here it becomes the fulcrum of a plot exploring the ethics of authorship and the anxiety of influence. Or a least loudly purporting to. Like many an Oxford undergrad, this film isn’t as enchantingly clever as it thinks it is, and while The Lesson does have indisputably good taste in both actors and influences — some Alfred Hitchcock here, some Patricia Highsmith there — the pastiche of a rarified, literary world never fully convinces. Has the tutor failed to heed his own instruction?

103mins, cert 15

In cinemas