Let’s spend a Sunday night watching a film dramatization of a narrative poem! You’re forgiven if an eyebrow went up at reading that sentence –it’s almost a little too painfully highbrow, even for me, and I live for stuff like this. But The Song of Lunch is a unique, occasionally painful depiction of a lunch date between two ex-lovers over a decade after their relationship ended is definitely worth a look. It’s rare that something on television nowadays is willing to take a risk and be original – and this has that in spades.
Take a minute to watch a scene from the film, then click through for a few of my (spoiler-free) thoughts!
Starring the always wonderful Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, The Song of Lunch is adapted by Niall McCormick from a poem by Christopher Reid. The conceit is clever: the majority of the dialogue is the text of the poem itself being read by Rickman, while a dramatic reenactment of events is conducted onscreen. It may take you a few minutes to get used to this rather novel presentation style – the first ten minutes or so are basically an interior monologue as Rickman’s character (simply referred to as “He”) walks to the restaurant and waits for Thompson’s (“She”) to arrive – but it’s a fascinating character piece and the language is (as you’d expect) lovely and evocative. In fact, it’s sometimes almost too evocative – see Rickman’s character’s description of the state of the gentlemen’s restroom. But mostly, it’s incredibly accurate in its depictions of tiny, slice-of-life moments, such as when “He” nails the feeling of that moment - “that pause of anxiety and mute appeal” - that characterizes the few seconds you’re waiting for a restaurant host to confirm that yes, your reservations actually exist and you’re “in the book” after all. Perfect. (And of course, there's the always double plus good bonus of listening to Rickman speak for an extended period of time.)
Ironically, in a lot of ways this is a film (poem?) that’s about the emptiness of words – someone is speaking almost the entire time, but our narrator spends a great deal of it chattering on about nothing and becoming increasingly incoherent as he becomes more intoxicated. The entire film is basically comprised of talking, and yet our characters can’t seem to find a way to communicate with one another, as though both of them are trying to navigate a language that neither is fluent in. Their conversation is increasingly at cross purposes, and whether it’s that they’ve forgotten how to talk to one another, or never really knew how, their interaction grows increasingly more tense and sad. It’s awkward, bittersweet, and sadly beautiful at the same time. It is a bit like watching poetry, after all.
To be fair, it is occasionally frustrating that it is Rickman’s character who is the narrator of the piece. Though the narrative voicework is lovely, we’re given no similar look inside the head of Thompson’s character - though on the face of it it’s easy to tell that “She” is much more successful, well-adjusted and mature than her ex. It’s easy to see why “She” left this man, but less so to determine why she was with him in the first place or what drew her to this reunion – “He” is a difficult person: bitter, largely stuck in his own past, and with what appears to be a rather significant drinking problem. The fact that “He” is largely unlikeable doesn’t make the character any less interesting, but it does make him a bit frustrating, if only in a you sort of want to box his ears for being so difficult way.
The charm of this piece though, remains the format, and the pleasure of carefully chosen words spoken artfully. The Song of Lunch has an ending that feels more like the end of a short story, and there are loose ends we’ll never see wrapped up, much though I wish we could see a little further in "His" journey at least. But it’s very moving, and the whole film does feel very true.