Adapting poetry to television or film is a formidable challenge; unlike prose or drama, poetry relies more heavily on form and syntax than description and plot. “The Song of Lunch,” however, deftly transforms those literary challenges into an engaging short film from the BBC.
“The Song of Lunch,” a 50-minute film based on the poem of the same name by Christopher Reid, stars Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. Rickman is the unnamed narrator and anti-hero, a middle-age publishing house copy editor and failed poet. He is meeting the similarly unnamed Thompson, his ex of 15 years, for a reunion lunch at the Italian restaurant they frequented as a couple.
Upon arriving he finds that the place, Zanzotti’s, has not been so stuck in time as he. The restaurant, once dark, smoky, noisy, richly and almost stereotypically Italian, seems to be under new management — or mismanagement, he dryly notes. Fringed, checkered tablecloths have been replaced with clean white linens; the waiters, once old and swarthy “like a pirate crew,” are now young, chipper; the menu prominently features overly fancy pizzas, some kind of anathema to him. Unpleased, he nevertheless orders a bottle of Chianti and hunkers down to brood and wait for her arrival.
She, of course, likes the new restaurant and says as much, rattling his enhanced memories of their shared past. Here, at the beginning, time moves slowly, painfully so, giving him time to narrate (the film being fairly light on dialogue) as well as mirroring his hyperaware state of mind. He narrates his thoughts on her hair, the wrinkles crowding her knuckle and her friendly interaction with the waiter, whom she asks for menu advice.
“She doesn’t need it,” his voiceover notes, “but it’s her style to entrust herself in unimportant matters, pose questions that are easy to answer, and, indeed, it makes the waiter smile when, tapping the menu decisively, she requests the pumpkin ravioli because he has recommended it, with sea bass to follow.”
The ongoing narration would be maddening if not for the quality of the underlying poem, the expert delivery by Rickman and, as so often it is in real life, copious amounts of alcohol. She stops at one glass, but he continues on unabated, even ordering a second bottle (and grappa to follow). In these instances the ongoing narration, ostensibly provided by him, provides a humorous aspect to his otherwise disheartening alcoholic intake. “He has killed a bottle, almost singlehanded. When he seizes the new one and nods it in her direction, her flattened hand places an interdiction on the half-full glass that would be half-empty to him.”
On several occasions the need for narration colludes surprisingly well with the awkwardness of the film’s visual cues. Caught yet again gaping rather lecherously at her, he wanly explains, “It’s the old male gaze,” adding through voiceover, “Through alcoholic haze.”
She, for one, is unappreciative of his tipsy humor.
“Typical. You can’t even pay attention for the few minutes we have. I’ve come all this way, dropped my family at not the most convenient moment, hopped on the shuttle, taken the taxi ride from hell, convinced at every traffic light I’d be late, and here I am, all tuned up for our little reunion only to find your physical guzzling tippling self recognizable present but your mind appears to have flitted off on holiday. You’re out to lunch at your own lunch.”
For him, the meeting is no real blast from the past. He is old, and a failure, toiling away at the publisher’s and basking in the pallor of his own literary illness. In his book of poetry, she tells him, the metaphor fell apart because he thought he was writing about her when in fact he himself was the hidden muse. The vanity is astounding, not merely in part because he refuses to acknowledge it.
“The Song of Lunch” is gauche, awkward, claustrophobic and wonderful. His feelings of entrapment mesh expertly with the close-ups, composing the vast majority of the film, the extended zoom transforming into disquieting portraiture. Both Thompson and Rickman, who carries the majority of the dramatic load, shine as former intimates searching for some part of their storied past in a present that, for him at least, is unpalatably worse. For one short, midday meal, he comes face to face with both his ex and, worse, himself.