A snack in the clouds

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - REVIEWS - DON­ALD CLARKE


Di­rected by Seán Ó Cualáin

G cert, lim­ited re­lease, 71 min

You won­der why no­body had thought of it be­fore. Made for TG4 with as­sis­tance from the Ir­ish Film Board, Men at Lunch (largely in English) in­ves­ti­gates that fa­mous pho­to­graph of 1930s con­struc­tion work­ers eat­ing their sand­wiches on a girder many storeys above New York City.

Seán Ó Cualáin does an ex­cel­lent job of group­ing to­gether a pot­ted study of the im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence with an ex­am­i­na­tion of the pho­to­graph’s his­tory and an anal­y­sis of the var­i­ous Ir­ish con­nec­tions. There are sur­prises and mo­ments of ten­sion along the way. Fion­nula Flana­gan nar­rates with all the fruity res­o­nance we ex­pect from that fine ac­tor. The rev­e­la­tions about the prac­tices of early dare­devil pho­tog­ra­phers will in­duce ver­tigo in all but the bravest psy­ches.

All that noted, the film does not really scream out for com­mer­cial pre­sen­ta­tion. A fine piece of tele­vi­sion that won friends at fes­ti­val screen­ings, Men at Lunch really be­longs in a prime spot af­ter the evening news.

The ten­sion comes from a sus­pi­cion – con­vinc­ingly dis­pelled – that the im­age might be a fake. The film-mak­ers travel to a deeply buried ar­chive, lo­cate the orig­i­nal plate and in­vite us to breathe a col­lec­tive sigh of re­lief. Then Ó Cualáin sets to his main task.

His­to­ri­ans of New York have had a great deal of dif­fi­culty iden­ti­fy­ing the lofty work­ers. But our cur­rent film-mak­ers feel sure that two of the men were im­mi­grants from the town of Shanaglish in Gal­way. By con­nect­ing that re­mote vil­lage with the build­ing of a mighty tower in New York City, Ó Cualáin cre­ates a rather gor­geous arc that sweeps across the myth of Di­as­pora. The even­tual con­clu­sions are as neat as they are mov­ing.

At times, the film does some­what over­reach it­self. The core im­age is strik­ing, but it’s not quite as “iconic” as claimed. The al­lu­sions to 9/11 are un­nec­es­sary. But Men at Lunch re­mains an honourable, worth­while ef­fort.

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