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.