The Lesson Movie Review
Written by Hamzah Sarwar
Released by Frightfest Presents
Written and directed by Ruth Platt
2015, 97 minutes, Rated 18 (UK)
DVD released on 11th July 2016
Robert Hands as Mr. Gale
Evan Bendall as Fin
Michaela Prchalová as Mia
Dolya Gavanski as Tanja
Tom Cox as Jake
Rory Coltart as Joel
Ruth Platt teaches a bruising lesson in this gritty, blood-soaked British fable that journeys through scrolls of classic literature from Milton's imposingly hellish Paradise Lost through to Hobbes' Leviathan to arrive at its broodingly moralistic conclusion. It's a devilishly twisted role reversal as the bully becomes the bullied and where learning becomes a cathartic mode of physical punishment rather than intellectual enhancement. Only the educated are free in what translates as a dark interpretation of 'knowledge is power'. The coming of age love story is entirely relatable but is weighed down by the claustrophobic and bloody torture sequences that grate the senses. Despite all of The Lesson's intellectual prowess (Platt's English Literature degree from Oxford is put to good use), it lacks the fear factor required to truly unsettle over its feature length.
Fin and Joel are teenage boys in the height of puberty. They amble through a desolate arid landscape without purpose. They merely exist in a state of flux. The pair have no boundaries and subject their English teacher, Mr Gale, to a profoundly embarrassing public humiliation. Fin's feelings for the beautiful Tanja are secondary to his impulsive urges to run wild. That is until one of their victims decides to exact their revenge and teach the boys a lesson. The moment the boys are held captive is the film's only purely terrifying moment. A sudden knockout blow from their captor jolts terror into a slow opening third. Who is the perpetrator and what does he want? To Platt's credit there is a continual ebb and flow to whose side we’re on. Instinctively, I felt compelled to side with the tormentor (Mr Gale) and wanted to see the boys suffer for their reckless antics. However, this vengeful feeling soon dissipated into a quaint form of pity. The comic anti-hero, Mr Gale, becomes increasingly maniacal and monstrous. He spews knowledge and quotes the literary greats, intent on using education as a means of torture.
The painful torture sequences are overwhelmingly familiar. While the intellectually stimulating passages are recited, it's almost like being torn between two halves. On one hand, there is a great desire to dutifully follow the narrative and immerse oneself in the ins and outs of the literary references. But on the other, it’s all about survival through the barrage of blood. At times, it feels like being hit over the head repeatedly with a heavy textbook. The message is loud and clear and one that doesn’t need repeating. The culmination leads to a faint sense of worthiness but its impact is lessened due to the unlikeablity of the main leads.
Platt's micro-budget debut is shot beautifully and displays promising, yet unfulfilled potential. Described by the director as the 'love child of Harmony Korine and Fritz Lang', The Lesson is refreshingly different. Its art-house look and feel complement its gritty realism but the final sullen feeling of emptiness is overwhelming. The Ben Wheatley influence yields a darkly comic undertone, it’s a debut influenced by a rich vein of auteurs but one without its own identity. Ruth Platt joins the pantheon of emerging genre talent and is definitely one to watch