Torture porn can be aspirational. Who’d have thunk it? Ruth Platt, writer and director of The Lesson did and here’s she’s entirely right. The story follows a beleaguered teacher as he attempts to maintain control of his pupils. Let’s guess, he then gets really annoyed and then murders them all? Not quite. The key to the narrative is realising that the only true method of learning is working out what affects the individual. As the early scenes point out, individual background as base tongue may yet reveal hidden depths the cause of tides that can change worlds. In this case, the world is hidden behind the hard-set brows, heavy beats, idle bikes and car scratching knives of a group of unromanticised teenagers.
The script and direction clearly show Platt’s background as an Oxford University educated Classics scholar, director and actress in her own right. The writing itself has nuance, but this is teased out through the performance of Robert Hands as Mr. Gale. It is not quite true to say that he is a great actor throughout, as some of the louder segments lose their intensity partly due to his delivery and the camera framing, but what he does beautifully is convey the gloomy irony of one used to banging his head against the wall, and he is particularly effective in the more comic moments when abstract threat is realised. From his full introduction onwards, the camera’s frontal yet often slightly cropped perspective invites the audience to assess his performance (with all that that implies) as well as lending the narrative a sense of the paradoxical claustrophobia caused by his ideals. What’s more, Hands’ speech on the imagination is beautiful (and terrible) in its own right.
Hands is ably abetted by Evan Bendall, Michaela Prchalova and Tom Cox. As the first half (perhaps consciously) initially mires them in stereotype, their characters only emerge towards the latter half of the piece. Their representations become almost archetypal, with Prchalova almost impossibly distant, Bendall with hidden lightening wits and Cox as a malleable joker figure. One section shot against a sunset is superb for conveying the complex impetuousness of youth. They in turn are supported by others who background colours merely build intensity into the central narrative.
The film is not without its problems. One of the early bit parts contains some horrendous acting, slightly disrupting the tone, and the violent sequences are at times predictable. It is also the case that while the models of ethics are discussed without jargon (is it ever appropriate to nail gun someone to a table?), this film isn’t one for the casual cider swiller unless they have a degree or at least a healthy interest in literature. Indeed, at one point Gale addresses a character/the camera to ask if they’re still following the argument. If you know even half the references in here, the film finishes with a haunting and complex clarity. Only the truly educated are free, as Platt’s thoughtful and oddly poignant torture porn attests.
THE LESSON / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: RUTH PLATT / STARRING: ROBERT HANDS, EVAN BENDALL, MICHAELA PRCHALOVA, TOM COX, DOLYA GAVANSKI / RELEASE DATE: TBC