The story started its life as a radio play on the BBC Third Programme, and was later brought to the London stage in 1961. But, none of these portrays where as interesting or original as James Hill’s film version of Lunch Hour in 1962. This version, produced by Eyeline Films, was not a huge success on its release, but has since gained the following of large cult and art-house audiences, due to its challenging narrative structure, and hidden cultural commentaries.
The film’s plot, at first, is somewhat simple. Shirley Anne Field plays a young woman, starting her new job at a London textile and wallpaper company. She quickly catches the eye of Robert Stephens’s character, an older male manager, working within the same building block. The two are unknown by name, but not by nature. We witness the pair grow closer spiritually, while a tense sexual atmosphere slowly grows between them.
At this point, the plot seems commonly overused. And, certain points in the film, particularly in script construction, seem lacking of real and deep emotional power. This, however, picks up dramatically, once a difficult social conflict is presented in the story, one that is a leaping point for the rest of the film. The two of them hold so much love and passion for each other, and, naturally, wish to express this. They each find themselves in positions of little privacy from the world, so decide to make a habit of meeting up during their lunch hour. However, friends, or members of the public, constantly interrupt them; a feeling of childlike constraint is placed on them by society. They start to feel naughty, or that they are doing something wrong by showing affection in public. More than anything, the pair needs time to be alone. However, when they finally find that time, it proves not to be as pleasant or helpful as they first thought it would be.
It is at this point that Lunch Hour changes tonally, introducing elements of non-linear storytelling and imagined dream sequences. The alone time this couple were desperately seeking proves to be their biggest challenge. As if the film were trying to say that, you never really know a person until you have spent time alone with them. For the film’s central relationship, this sequence is a step down, but for the film’s audience, it is here that the film majorly steps up.
As for our two main actors, Shirley Anne Field easily steals the show, out-acting Robert Stephens in almost every scene they share. At first, her innocence and inexperience radiate from the screen. But, her character grows in strength as the film does, and by the end, Field moves her character forward emotionally, hitting every note perfectly along the way. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Stephens. Every now and then, a hint of overacting or overemphasized desperation is dropped, he does, at times, manage to keep a certain amount of warmth about his character. But, compared to Field, he is simply outclassed.
For the most part, the film is, fairly conventionally made. However, smart technical tricks are used seamlessly as the film progresses. These include nicely constructed deep-focus shots, of particular note, a scene early in the film, at a park. The pair looks on curiously at a kissing couple in the background, little knowing that this situation perfectly projects the position they will later find themselves in. The film’s creative use of deep-focus allows us to gain storytelling hints and clues, which, in turn, enhances audience experience.
Foreshadowing is also used to great effect during the film’s opening sequence, much like Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, we are placed point of view, looking out over the front of a moving train. Not only does this shot mean a great deal later in the film, the symbolization of train tracks crossing paths as they move, is much like the crossed-paths of our two main characters.
Aside from the film’s great and subtle technical teasing, is its successfulness in creating a satisfying mood for 60s London, and a newfound sexual revolution. Lunch Hour creates a local, working-class cinematic mood. It does this without looking down or up to anyone; instead, it looks straight ahead at a certain British working-class society of the 60s, treating its characters as human beings, and never as stereotypes. Because of this, a strong feeling of truthfulness is created, allowing us more leniency towards the film, and its defining messages.
Lunch Hour is, above all, a film about spontaneous love, its rise, its fall, and its unwanted impact on a sexually conservative culture. In part, it fails to impress, but look further than the film’s occasionally uncreative dialog and acting, into its heart. There, you will find a great oddball film, bursting with style, attitude, and, above all, love.
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