Understated and moving, writer-producer Richard Curtis’ latest improbable romance proves a thought-provoking, modestly scaled affair that somewhat awkwardly affixes an overt political message onto its more marketable core. Bill Nighy delivers a brilliantly restrained performance in a movie that consistently keeps the audience off guard as to where it’s heading. While unlikely to influence policy-making at the G8 Summit, as Curtis rather grandiosely may hope, his film should win over hearts (if not necessarily minds) among all but the most cynical.
Beginning with a classic chance encounter, Nighy’s repressed government bureaucrat, Lawrence, plops down in a crowded cafe across from a mysterious young woman named Gina (Kelly Macdonald). After some idle and very clever chat, he impulsively (for him, anyway) proposes they meet again, and then again.
Nighy portrays a character utterly defeated, all the way down to his slouching posture — a fellow whose number-crunching work is his life, hinting at opportunities missed and roads not taken. “I’m not the man I dreamt I might be when I was young,” he confesses.
The budding relationship takes a strange turn when Lawrence invites Gina to join him on a trip to Iceland for the G8 economic summit, noting his colleagues are bringing their significant others. Even with the two sharing a room, it’s all quite chaste, but things begin to assume unexpected dimension when Gina presses his boss — Britain’s finance minister (Ken Scott) — on why the U.K. reps aren’t fighting harder to implement programs that would benefit impoverished children.
As the writer of “Love, Actually” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” Curtis has been outspoken about his politics as well as his goals regarding the film, which starkly highlights the contention that major industrial powers aren’t doing enough to ameliorate third world suffering. Yet despite the narrative burden of that humanitarian message, the central relationship remains thoroughly compelling, and it’s difficult not to root for Lawrence to achieve some measure of happiness.
Macdonald (the Peter Pan in “Finding Neverland”) betrays little behind her world-weary eyes, as Curtis leaves the viewer to plug in her back story in much the way that we can only speculate about Lawrence as well.
There are some lapses in logic, to be sure, beginning with how Gina ever boarded the plane without some sort of background check, and the ending will doubtless feel a tad heavy-handed to some, as well as less than believable.
In its totality, though, Curtis and director David Yates have achieved the delicate juggling act of incorporating the larger theme into a wistfully personal, almost hypnotic story. Part of that can be attributed to the impeccable care in small details, from the glimpses of Reykjavik to Nicholas Hooper’s melancholy score.
While the message in “The Girl in the Cafe” may not go down easily for Fox News viewers, the strength of its leads and passion of its ideals observe no party allegiances, resulting in a confection sweetened by rare grace and gentle nobility.