In “The Lesson,” an amusingly taut British thriller playing now in American movie theaters, two novels result from the same events at an opulent country estate.
This chamber piece — a debut feature from both the director Alice Troughton, a regular of episodic television, and the comedian turned screenwriter Alex MacKeith — asks, both tacitly and explicitly: Can any creative endeavor be honestly attributed to a single source?
One of the film’s writers, J.M. Sinclair (a ferocious Richard E. Grant) is a consummate literary star, who hasn’t published a novel since his firstborn son’s suicide. The unscrupulous Sinclair, however, is about to write the final chapter in a new novel, “Rose Tree,” while staying true to his favorite aphorism, “Great writers steal.”
The other scribe, Liam Somers (the Irish actor Daryl McCormack), is a young upstart with writing ambitions of his own. Hired as a live-in tutor to Sinclair’s youngest child, Bertie (Stephen McMillan), to help him gain admission to Oxford University, Somers soon begins taking copious notes on the family, and becomes entangled with their secrets.
The larger narrative we witness — of a monstrous father willing to betray anyone in his life for a self-aggrandizing pursuit, and a stranger entering this isolated family unit to solve the central mystery around the elder son’s death — will eventually become Liam’s first book.
“I’d never been offered a part quite like that before,” Grant said recently by phone. “Playing anybody who has that amount of entitlement and monstrous ego, you long for them to fall apart.”
Given Sinclair’s twisted sense of ownership over his children, Troughton, the director, described the character as a toxic parent certain that “there’s nothing that your children can do that doesn’t belong to you, or come from you.” Francisco Goya’s graphic painting “Saturn Devouring His Son” served as the director’s key reference for understanding Sinclair’s behavior, she said in a video interview.
Yet the most influential scribe may be one who never puts pen to paper, nor fingers to keyboard, but orchestrates the events that help both the movie’s literary works come to fruition: Hélène Sinclair, a curator and wife to the overbearing patriarch, played by the French actress Julie Delpy. Hélène’s objective in allowing Liam inside the home is to unveil her husband’s secrets.
“She essentially functions as the detective with Liam operating as a vector for her,” MacKeith said. “When you underlay that with her motive of discovery, but also vengeance, her agency in the film and her orchestration does make her the author.”
For Delpy, who described her character as a “mother fatale,” answering the question of who deserves credit when a writer creates a story from actual events is less clear-cut.
“When you tell stories about people around you, are you using them, or are they partly authors, since you’re telling their story?” she asked in a recent phone interview. “Is the story solely the writer’s writing, even if based on someone else? What’s the limit between inspiration and coauthorship?”
Delpy, a writer-director herself, said she believed that the need for attribution depends on what’s being borrowed. She admitted to having stolen single lines, or small situations from strangers’ conversations she overhead in restaurants, which she then has transformed into stories.
The kind of intellectual theft Sinclair is happy to engage in, on the other hand, is far more insidious. Even his repeated aphorism is purloined from T.S. Eliot.
Inspiration for Sinclair’s ruthless appropriation of others’ writing, MacKeith said, came from the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in which a writer plagiarizes Miguel de Cervantes’ masterwork word for word, and then claims it as his own.
Over the course of the film, it becomes hard to decipher precisely who is responsible for each story within the story. Liam’s novel is only possible as a side effect of Hélène’s machinations, and, early on, Sinclair decides to enlist Liam in his writing process for “Rose Tree.”
As for whose work “The Lesson” itself is, MacKeith said that after their close five-year collaboration to bring the film to screen, he and Troughton were joint authors. The seasoned director brought touches of horror, as well as the idea of redemption, to the piece, MacKeith said, which were in turn elevated by the ensemble cast and crew in every tense scene.
“As an actor, you have to create something beyond the script itself,” McCormack said. “I always hope that when I’m working alongside other people, that I can have a sense of being a co-author to the story in what I can do.”
For MacKeith, this idea of collective ownership of the movie extended to the viewers, who must draw their own conclusions from “The Lesson,” especially after an unsettling plot twist.
“The product itself is picture-locked,” he said, “but our discussion about it means that we as the audience can also have authorship of it in our interpretation.”