The funny and tense British thriller The Lesson, now playing in American cinemas, tells the story of two novels inspired by the same events in a gorgeous country mansion.
This chamber work, the debut of both episodic television regular Alice Troughton and comedian-turned-writer Alex McKeith, implicitly and explicitly states that “any creative Can such efforts be honestly attributed to a single source?”
One of the film’s writers, J.M. Sinclair (the ferocious Richard E. Grant), is a consummate literary star who hasn’t published a novel since the suicide of his eldest son. But the unscrupulous Sinclair is about to write the final chapter of his new novel, The Rosebush, while staying true to his favorite adage, “Great writers steal.”
Another screenwriter, Liam Summers (Irish actor Darryl McCormack), is a young upstart with writing ambitions of his own. Hired as a live-in tutor to help Sinclair’s youngest son, Bertie (Stephen McMillan), enroll at Oxford University, Summers soon begins taking copious notes about the family and becomes entangled in their secrets.
The larger story we witness is a monstrous father willing to betray everyone in his life in his pursuit of self-aggrandization, and this isolated family to solve the central mystery surrounding the death of their eldest son. The story of a stranger breaking into the unit would eventually become Liam’s first book.
“I’ve never been offered a role like that before,” Grant said by phone recently. “When you play someone with all these rights and huge egos, you want them to fall apart.”
Given Sinclair’s distorted sense of ownership over the children, director Troughton convinces the character that “nothing a child can do is not theirs and is not of their own making.” It was described as being a toxic parent. Graphic painting by Francisco GoyaSaturn devouring his son‘ was an important reference for the director to understand Sinclair’s actions, she said in a video interview.
But the most influential screenwriter might be the one who puts neither pen to paper nor fingers to keyboard, orchestrating the events that help both literary works of film come to fruition. French actress Julie Delpy. Her purpose for Hélène to let her Liam into her house was to uncover her husband’s secret.
“She essentially functions as a detective and Liam as her vector,” McKeith said. “Underlying her discovery and her motives for revenge, it is her subjectivity and orchestration in her films that make her a writer.”
For Delpy, who described her character as “the mother of destiny,” the answer to the question of who deserves credit when writers create stories from real events is less clear.
“When you tell stories about the people around you, are you taking advantage of them, or are they part authors because you’re telling their stories?” she said in a recent phone interview. So I asked: “Even if it’s modeled after someone else, is the story written by that author alone? What’s the line between inspiration and co-authorship?”
Delpy, who is also a writer and director herself, said she believes the need for attribution is determined by what is borrowed. She admitted to stealing lines and small situations from the conversations of strangers above her in restaurants and turning them into stories.
The kind of intellectual theft that Sinclair is happy to do, on the other hand, is much more insidious. Even his recurring maxim he plagiarized from TS Eliot.
McKeith said the inspiration for Sinclair’s relentless plagiarism of the writings of others came from Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote.” he claims it as his own.
As the film progresses, it becomes harder to decipher exactly who is responsible for each story in the story. Liam’s novel is only viable as a side effect of Hélène’s plot, and Sinclair decides early on to enlist Liam to help write The Rosebush.
As to whose work “The Lesson” itself is, McKeith said he and Troughton became co-writers after five years of close collaboration to bring the film to the screen. McKeith said the veteran director brought a touch of dread and an idea of salvation to the film, which was heightened by the cast and crew ensemble in each tense scene.
“As an actor, you have to create something beyond the script itself,” McCormack said. “When he works with other people, he always wants to have the feeling that he’s co-authored the story in what he can do.”
For McKeith, this idea of co-ownership of the film, especially after the disturbing plot twist, extended to the idea that viewers should also draw their own conclusions from “The Lesson.”
“The product itself is picture locked,” he said. “But our discussion of it means that we, as spectators, can also be its authors in our interpretation.”