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DVD Review: The Song of Lunch

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Some things just sound like a bad idea. In 2010, Greg Wise, an executive producer at the BBC, decided to commission an adaptation of a long narrative poem by Christopher Reid to mark National Poetry Day in Britain. That poem, The Song of Lunch, tells of a bitter, sarcastic failed writer and editor who arranges to have lunch with an old lover, whom he hasn’t seen in 15 years … not since she left him to marry a famous and successful author. She now lives in Paris with her husband and two children, but pops over to London for a reunion in a small Soho Italian restaurant where they used to spend time during their affair.

It all sounds rather contrived and literary.

The surprise is, as adapted and directed by Niall MacCormick, The Song of Lunch is both witty and surprisingly rich in emotion. For a film based on a poem, in which intoxication plays a major part – love, lust, wine – it’s perhaps logical that it’s steeped in words. And at first, it seems that the words, a running monologue narrating and dissecting the story, will overwhelm the drama. In the opening minutes, the images illustrate exactly what is being said in a completely literal way. But as the story unfolds between “he” (Alan Rickman) and “she” (Emma Thompson), the words and images begin to resonate with one another.

What we hear in the voiceover becomes a sardonic, bitter, defensive strategy on “his” part, which crumbles and collapses as the lunch fails to go the way he had hoped. It’s not entirely clear what he had actually hoped would come of the meeting, perhaps simply that the intervening fifteen years would disappear and he would once again find himself in the state of happiness he imagines existed during their affair.

The combination of his jealousy and the bitterness he feels about his own literary failure (one unsuccessful book of poetry) makes things go wrong from the start. When “she” arrives, she’s warm and friendly, obviously having come with a feeling of friendship. But his prickly responses quickly push her away. He can’t conceal his anger and disappointment, even though he realizes that those feelings are at war with his own erotic attraction to her.

There’s very little actual dialogue in the film, but what there is is skillfully woven into the voice-over, as counterpoint and disruption, gradually tearing his defenses to shreds. The more apparent it becomes that she is no longer available to him, the more desperate he becomes … and the more he drinks, retreating into himself. As she tells him at one point, he’s there physically, but is disappearing … “even at your own lunch, you’re out to lunch.”

As rich as the words are, and as finely polished as the images are, the real strength of The Song of Lunch is the cast. Emma Thompson has probably never been more radiant than she is here, seen through the desperate eyes of a former lover, while Alan Rickman offers a finely tuned portrait in middle-aged desperation, a sense of failure oozing from slack grey skin, eyes barely able to remain open as he sinks deeper inside himself. The aura of self-loathing he gives off tells us everything we need to know about the crucial choice “she” made 15 years ago.

Although it takes a little while to adjust to the film’s style and pace, with small moments drawn out at length to provide sufficient room for all the words, The Song of Lunch is funny, moving, even erotic. This 50-minute adaptation of a poem, written, directed and performed with adults in mind, is one of the finest pieces of entertainment to appear in some time.

The BBC/2entertain DVD presents this excellent short film in a beautifully clear anamorphic transfer. There are no extras on the disk, which is a pity as a commentary from writer-director MacCormick could have offered some interesting insights into the process of transforming poetry into visual storytelling.

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About K. George

I have been a film editor for some twenty years, cutting shorts and features, drama and documentary, theatrical and television. Since my earliest memories of movies — watching Omar Sharif as Ghengis Khan, Ursula Andress as She in the Odeon or Regent or Pavilion in Chelmsford, Essex, in the early ’60s, or catching King Kong or Quatermass 2 on a small black and white television in our living room in White Roding — what engaged me, and still engages me, is story and the techniques of storytelling. Even in my documentary work, the concern is always with how to shape the material into a compelling narrative. When I returned to school in my mid-20s, I started hanging out at the University of Winnipeg student newspaper office and eventually became the weekly film reviewer — an excellent gig because it meant I got to see a lot of movies for free. No doubt that experience helped when I fortuitously got an opportunity to go to Los Angeles and interview David Lynch and many of his collaborators on the production of Eraserhead for an article for Cinefantastique. And that article in turn landed me a job on the production of Lynch’s Dune, a remarkable six months in Mexico helping to document the day-to-day details of production on one of the most expensive movies ever made. Eventually returning to Winnipeg, I wrote fairly regularly about film and other matters for Border Crossings, an arts quarterly. And then, in 1989, I joined the Winnipeg Film Group and set about making my own first film, a 9-minute comedy in the form of a dubious documentary called Incident at Pickerel Fillet. This was followed by a short piece in a collaborative project called The Exquisite Corpse, and then a more ambitious comedy parodying old-style sci-fi movie serials called The Adventures of Stella Starr of the Galaxy Rangers in the 23rd Century. These experiences led inexorably to a career in film editing, mostly on documentaries. Over the years, I have also sporadically continued writing — a number of unfilmed scripts, plus a brief history of the Winnipeg Film Group for Cinema Scope, and most recently a chapter on filmmaker John Kozak in the WFG’s anthology about Winnipeg directors, Place.