Short Film Review: The English Lesson (Director - Paul Herbert)

Described by the production team Bluejohn Productions as “Dead Poets Society meets 1984”, The English Lesson takes a satirical sideswipe at an education system lead by performance related targets. The story is inspired by filmmaker Paul Herbert’s experiences at a second language school for non-native English speakers. Set in the near-future, English teacher Virgil delivers lessons as a mere conduit of a bigger system. He is a subordinate to the Autoprof, a cold e-learning tool ‘teaching’ via a creepy, distorted-faced leader pitching its lessons below its prison jumpsuit-clad students’ level.

Here, learning is a passive activity, where one must listen, repeat and pass exams. The film has an oppressive, washed out-look, a little reminiscent of Richard Ayoade’s The Double. Composer Matt Saunders bolsters the atmosphere of dread with an eerie, John Carpenter-esque score. Tonally, the film balances the mundane with the foreboding, and there is a dry humour throughout. Downtrodden Virgil, glibly hands out papers, apologising about weekly exams, shortly after a student questions the meaning of Ennui.

The film teases details of the wider landscape of the outside world, a vision of austerity-max and mass unemployment plays out through newspapers and TV news. But, it feels like it’s missing some of the nuances of how the language school came to be, and the wider context of why it operates with such military authority from the brain-and-brawn double act that is brutish bully ‘Butch’ and omnipresent corporate whip cracker principal Mangle. Broadly, it comments on the power shift between employer and employee, where zero-hours contracted workers become keen jobsworths to stay in jobs they loathe.

There is some unnecessary expository voice-over, it would have been more impactful to have seen Virgil wrestle with his conscious in a less obvious way. However, actor Tim Hayward plays his role with the quiet anger of a man who is constantly screwed over by the system and those who enforce it. It’s all there, behind the eyes, and what he doesn’t utter speaks volumes, particularly in his silent exchanges with apparently rebellious female student Marie (Laila Rose Bournomane).

Like other dystopian tales at the moment (Black Mirror, in particular), the subject matter feels a little too close for comfort and delivers a neat little comic-horror twist at the end. Amid austerity, educational reform, outside mediators dealing with workplace bullying, and Brexit uncertainty, The English Lesson feels like a timely piece.

Watch the trailer

The English Lesson recently screened at the Bucharest ShortCut Cinefest in November. Visit Blue John Productions for more screening updates.

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