In illustrated, news, Review

Original caricature by Jeff York of Richard E. Grant in THE LESSON (copyright 2023)

English actor Richard E. Grant has been a critics’ darling as well as a beloved favorite of audiences since he achieved international acclaim in 1987’s black comedy WITHNAIL & I. In that role, Grant was cheeky, dangerous, and utterly mesmerizing – you couldn’t take your eyes off him. That could be said of most of his appearances his entire career. In role after role, lead or supporting, he’s essayed characters that are compelling, clever, edgy, and more often than not, the best part of the show.

In Robert Altman’s THE PLAYER in 1992, he stood out brilliantly as a headstrong director and made the line “The gas pellets have been dropped. She’s dead…because that’s…the reality” hilarious every time he uttered it. He stole an entire episode from Tom Hiddleston (no easy task) when he guest-starred on LOKI two years ago. On-screen, Grant has excelled playing all kinds of figures, from corporate types (HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING) to White House designers (JACKIE) to the bourgeois (THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, GOSFORD PARK). He even played Bob Cratchit to Patrick Stewart’s Ebenezer Scrooge! Perhaps most significantly, Grant made us laugh and cry in his Indie Spirit-winning and Oscar-nominated supporting turn in 2018’s CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

Grant has also proven himself to be especially good at playing villainous types, whether those enigmatic (DISPATCHES FROM ELSEWHERE) or wholly hissable (STAR WARS EPISODE IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER). Grant’s scowl could make the sun hide behind a cloud and his lean and hungry physique would terrify any Caesar. Still, no matter the role, Grant instills sympathy in them, even a touch of pathos, finding that which is relatable and/or even pitiable in each part. That’s especially true in his latest role as the bad guy in the film THE LESSON.

As a domineering and haughty author lording it over a tutor that he’s hired to prepare his son for Oxford, Grant makes his character deliciously wicked from beginning to end. His privileged J. M. Sinclair is the sort of fellow who’s always impeccably dressed, wearing smartly tailored clothing, not to mention his disdain for those beneath him in social class, on every sleeve. But despite playing such an arrogant one-percenter as Grant does in the movie, he cannot help but infuse the snide character with vulnerability and even grace. Sinclair on paper is a rather obvious prick, but Grant adds nuance and dimension, making it one of 2023’s more memorable performances – a supporting turn that could be in the running come awards season.

THE LESSON, written by Alex MacKeith and directed by Alice Troughton, concerns a young author named Liam Sommers (Daryl McCormack) who takes on a tutoring position at the estate of Sinclair. He immediately has his hands full not just with his moody charge Bertie Sinclair (Stephen McMillan), but with the equally mercurial patriarch and his stand-offish wife Helene (Julie Delpy). They’re the worst kind of helicopter parents, so invested in ensuring Bertie’s success that they force Liam to live with them all summer long to guarantee the kid learns.

Not only are the Sinclairs a snotty lot, but they’re shady too. Liam spends a good deal of the film trying to discover their savage secrets and keep them from dragging him further into their muck. In many ways, THE LESSON reminded me of THE GHOST WRITER from 2010, where Ewan McGregor’s naïve biographer was swallowed up by the drama surrounding his assignment too – rewriting the bio of a scandalous ex-prime minister. Dread was present throughout that story and it’s there in every moment of this one as well. It’s part character study, part psychological thriller, and part horror show. And yet, like any interloper story, this tutor ends up teaching the rest of those in the house a few salient life lessons as well. A lot of such instruction may seem obvious, but most of it makes for wily fun. The hardest lessons are handed out to Sinclair, a prick who needs a long-overdue humbling. It’s amusing to watch Grant’s Sinclair hem, haw, and squirm while being taught his lessons. His character’s comeuppance is something to see, both comedic and more than a little bit tragic. And Grant’s sharp playing of it all is sublime.

Just as sharp is Grant’s writing in his memoir A Pocketful of Happiness. It was a big hit in England this past fall and is available here in the States starting August 1. It’s a rollicking tale of many of Grant’s most vivid experiences, from his times as a struggling actor to his awards junketing during 2019’s Oscar season. Especially witty is his telling of his devotion to Barbra Streisand and how he finally met her. Grant writes with the same smarts and precision that he brings to every role and his bio easily stands as one of the most entertaining celebrity memoirs in many a moon. For my money, it’s the best since Christopher Plummer’s In Spite of Myself back in 2008.

But what makes Grant’s book truly captivating, and heartbreaking, is his recounting of his love for his wife Joan Washington, and her tragic death from cancer in 2021. The actress and dialect coach lost her eight-month battle with lung cancer that year, and Grant takes us through most of the experience, from her first diagnosis to Joan’s final breath. Yet even when he writes about planning his wife’s funeral, Grant manages to lace the anecdote with a sprinkling of his keen wit:

“…I’m lurching around in a daze, feeling stripped of five layers of skin, funeral shopping. How does anyone get their heads around that concept? Coffin. Cremation. Could there be any more horrible words than those?

Ultimately, the memoir turns out to be more inspiring than anything, as Grant and his adult daughter Oilly are compelled to find the goodness and light in each day and keep moving forward. Such lessons learned are evident in all of Grant’s compelling posts on social media since then too. His mini-films are most often a free-form, hand-held stream of consciousness, shot on his cellphone while walking from here to there. With each musing about a meal or nature or a new project, Grant showcases himself as an expert in a new kind of role – that of sage. His thoughts on living, dying, and all of the tragedy and comedy in between are truly profound and endlessly heartening. Indeed, just as in his latest film, life lessons are handed out to all comers. Such wisdom has become a culmination of all of Grant’s indelible experiences and his incredible talent.

There may be bigger movies this summer than THE LESSON, but between Grant’s stinging portrayal in that film and his stirring memoir, this amazing actor has once again stolen the show.

Recent Posts
Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Start typing and press Enter to search