Eddie Izzard had it right in “Dress to Kill” regarding the difference between British and American movies. Britain is known for making smaller, subdued films, the kind you can’t really eat popcorn to. Masterpiece Contemporary’s “A Song of Lunch” is just that kind of project — nuanced storytelling, doting camerawork and tremendous acting. Popcorn certainly won’t do, but a nice glass of Chianti or Grappa would provide the perfect pairing.
Adapted from Christopher Reid’s poem of lost love, longing and liquor, this unique project contains elements of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “My Dinner With Andre.” Reid’s poem was supposedly inspired by the pub scene in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” If Joyce captures slice-of-life Dublin, Reid captures slice-of-pizza Soho London with equal parts lachrymosity, cynicism and folly.
Under the Masterpiece Contemporary banner, this BBC production is part of a move to de-stodgify the stalwart series and explore new ideas in a timely way. While modern London is the setting, “A Song of Lunch” covers old themes of love and betrayal.
The action is mostly verbal, with a good deal of the story taking place in the “leafy literary” mind of Alan Rickman’s character, simply called “he.” A book copy editor who has arranged a lunch with an old flame (simply “she” played by Emma Thompson), he is apprehensive about the rendezvous at one of their old haunts. The restaurant has changed its look, the lovers are 15 years older, but the arguments, the old wounds and the familiarity is still very fresh.
“He” however, is stuck in his own mind, mingling memories, observations and longing. No movement, no action is too small to narrate, comment upon or examine. Wine is poured in a “splashy gabble,” and sharing appetizers or a touch of the hand takes on startling intimacy. The inner dialogue is entertainingly spot-on, both pompous and hilarious, with the colorful description of a pepper grinder and its application by the waitress one for the ages.
Director Niall MacCormick combines extreme close-ups, hazy memories and slow motion to give purpose to Rickman’s inner voice. His visual link to Rickman’s poetic play-by-play creates an in-depth portrait of small moments.
Thompson is the perfect antidote to “he’s” self-indulgent wistfulness and, despite less screen time, matches his level. Sharp, equally observant and intuitive, she accurately diagnoses her lunch partner as one who confuses poetry with therapy.
Rickman is at once funny, sad and insufferable, his thick voice and slow drawl a perfect match for such a complex monologue.