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Summit of love
Richard Curtis’s surprising political romance

Saying you’re immune to the charms of British writer/director Richard Curtis’s movies is almost like saying, "I’m immune to the charms of sunshine, milk and cookies, and sex." If this were England, I could be sent up for treason. But I’ll risk it.

Curtis’s screenplays for Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love Actually (his directorial debut) are manipulative to the point of sadism, cueing the audience’s responses with emotionally loaded and familiar pop songs (in the case of Four Weddings, it was W.H. Auden’s poetry) and beating you over the head with shallow insight about how love is complicated but it’s, you know, worth it. It’s puzzling how the same guy who wrote the deliciously anarchic Blackadder TV series can make movies that are devoid of risk and calculated to the point of airlessness. Everybody loves weddings! Everybody loves Julia Roberts! Everybody loves love! In the excruciating Love Actually (a two-and-a-half-hour trailer rather than a movie, actually), Curtis threw everything he had at the screen, including Hugh Grant shaking his booty, Emma Thompson weeping, hot naked sex, freakishly adorable children, and London at Christmastime. Everything except coherent story lines — there were at least 10 of them — or an ounce of sincerity. At the film’s most cloyingly awful, Curtis simply turned the camera on real-life travelers being welcomed home at the arrivals gate at Heathrow while the Beach Boys’ "God Only Knows" played on the soundtrack. Since then, I haven’t been able to hear "God Only Knows" without cringing. Thanks a lot, Richard.

How surprising, then, that Curtis’s latest writing and producing effort is so wholly satisfying. An unlikely blend of love story and call to arms, the HBO/BBC film The Girl in the Café (Saturday and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on HBO) is effortlessly charming and unusually thoughtful. It isn’t that Curtis has stopped wearing his heart on his sleeve; if anything, his heart — a big liberal bleeding one — is splashed all over the film. But he’s managed that most difficult of movie feats, entwining the personal and the political without trivializing either.

The Girl in the Café is a labor of love for this long-time anti-poverty activist in Great Britain. Curtis is the founder of the Comic Relief organization and is a member, with such luminaries as Brad Pitt and U2’s Bono, of this year’s Make Poverty History campaign. (In the US, it’s called One.org.) Make Poverty History has targeted next month’s G8 economic summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, to pressure the leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations to take action to end extreme poverty in Africa. Make Poverty History advocates debt relief for the world’s poorest countries (most of which are in Africa), a doubling of the aid budget to those countries, the rewriting of trade laws to protect African economies, and an increase in resources to arrest Africa’s AIDS epidemic. Make Poverty History is also the organization behind Bob Geldof’s Live 8 concerts and his calls for mass demonstrations in Scotland during the summit. And the posturing seems to have worked. Last week, the G8 nations agreed to erase at least $40 billion worth of debt owed by the world’s 18 poorest nations.

Curtis’s screenplay for The Girl in the Café sets an exquisitely tender love story against the global hardball of a (fictional) G8 summit in Reykjavík, Iceland. It shouldn’t work, but it does, beautifully, thanks to the shimmering performances of its leads, British character actor Bill Nighy and Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald. The elegantly wasted Nighy is best known in the US for his movie-stealing roles as an aging rock star in Love Actually and the eccentric Slartibartfast in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Macdonald was in Gosford Park and Trainspotting, and she made a memorable appearance this season on Alias as a doctor with ties to the IRA.

In The Girl in the Café, Nighy plays Lawrence, a pinstriped, fiftysomething civil servant in the ministry of finance. From the first wordless shots of the reserved Lawrence eating breakfast in his barren London apartment or hunched over policy papers in the corridors of power, we understand that this is a lonely man with nothing in his life but his work. One day, the soft-spoken Lawrence takes a coffee break in a crowded café and, looking around for an empty seat, makes a tentative yet spontaneous decision to sit down opposite a frumpy young woman huddled in a booth alone. Her name is Gina, she has a soft Scottish accent, and she seems a little too eager for the sound of another human voice. The two make shy, self-depreciating conversation, and Lawrence asks her for a date. In a fog of incredulity at his good fortune, he begins courting this sweet, patient, wry woman half his age. Soon, he makes the impolitic move of asking her to accompany him to Reykjavík for the G8 summit, where he’s to be part of the British delegation.

As Lawrence opens up to Gina, we learn that he can’t quite believe he’s become the sort of man who writes reports on the world’s economic problems that are then read by bureaucrats and politicians whose ability to solve those problems is minimal. For the G8 summit, he’s been preparing a report on AIDS and poverty in Africa. Gina listens solemnly to the statistics he quotes — a child dies every three seconds of conditions related to extreme poverty — and radiant purpose slowly lights her fine-boned features. She’s formulating a plan, but Lawrence doesn’t see it until it’s in motion. And he’s not prepared for the complications and hard choices love will bring into his perfectly ordered world.

Nighy, with his spidery limbs and swervy, Fred Astaire glide, emerges as a true romantic leading man here, evoking the poignant uncertainty of a someone untethering himself from reality for a blissful while. A scene of Lawrence gazing at himself in the mirror while shaving becomes, as Nighy plays it, a window into a middle-aged soul; he shakes his head slowly back and forth, a sheepish smile on his lips, as if to say, "What are you doing with her, you old fool?" Curtis unfolds the love story of Lawrence and Gina with grace and restraint; their delicate connection haunts you long after the movie is over. And, surprise, so does the film’s political element. Curtis conveys the importance of the G8 summit and what’s at stake there without preaching; director David Yates renders the summit scenes with thrilling urgency. As he showed in the acclaimed BBC America conspiracy thriller State of Play, Yates is particularly adept at shaping torrents of complicated dialogue and thorny plot into fluid visual storytelling. (He moves from TV to the big screen next year to direct a higher-profile conspiracy thriller — Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.)

The G8 nations’ agreeing to provide debt relief doesn’t really take the wind out of the movie’s rhetorical sails. Curtis is on more than one crusade. He feels the eyes of his countrypeople upon him, and in his recent films, he depicts an England pure of soul and noble of spirit, breaking the bonds of poodle servitude. In a bombastic scene from Love Actually, Prime Minister Hugh Grant told President Billy Bob Thornton to, in effect, kiss his independent English arse. In The Girl in the Café, a fictional British finance minister takes a similar, though infinitely more articulate and reasoned, stand with his American counterpart. But it’s Gina’s small, persistent chirp of passion that’s most likely to prick viewers’ consciences. The Girl in the Café is a moral movie but not a sanctimonious one; its lead characters are quietly and believably moved by compassion for suffering that’s taking place a world away. After all the glib platitudes of his previous romantic comedies, this is the Richard Curtis movie that convinces you of the power of love.

Issue Date: June 24 - 30, 2005
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