Girl in the Café, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 09/04/05 08:29:08

"So truly wonderful all around."
5 stars (Awesome)

Lawrence is a lonely man. “Unassuming” and “mild-mannered” are two of his more noticable traits, but above them all, he is alone. He has his work, and nothing else. And then, by chance, he meets Gena, a quiet woman half his age. She is lonely, too. They seem to notice this about each other, so when Lawrence asks Gena if she would like to meet again for lunch, the fact that they seem to have nothing in common, the fact that they do not in any way seem to be made at all for each other, does not stop her from saying yes.

So begins “The Girl In the Café,” a pure delight directed by British TV veteran David Yates and written by that master of the British romantic comedy, Richard Curtis. It is no surprise that HBO Films is marketing this movie completely on the basis of Curtis’ resumé; what his “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” and “Love Actually” lacked in original plotting, they made up in spades with pitch-perfect characters and a sense of dialogue rarely matched on screen.

“The Girl In the Café” may very well be Curtis’ best script to date. There’s a simplicity to its first half that’s deceptive, warming us up to the characters, allowing us to fall in love with them, hoping for nothing but the best for these two souls - which then leads into the second half, in which everything takes a sharp turn, the gentleness of the relationship playing only a role in the film’s grand agenda, in which the setting of the G8 Summit becomes the launching point for a strong political message.

Remarkably, Curtis manages to balance the romance and the politics of the film with the greatest of ease. Never does it feel as though the film is talking down to us, never does the politics feel as if they’re getting in the way of the story. Yes, the script is preaching, but Curtis always finds a way for such sermons to become quite welcome. The statistics we hear are conversational, never the tone of a lecture. And the story finds just the right finale to which to build, one that is satisfactory without giving in to fantasy. (To think that a movie can end so vaguely and yet so gratifyingly is a notable accomplishment indeed.)

Perhaps the politics of the film come off so well because Curtis is determined to stick to the characters. This is not a movie in which the characters are puppets through which the filmmakers present their cause - this is a movie in which the filmmakers develop their characters, completely craft a universe for them, and then only after all that do they find room to work in the agenda. Remove all mentions of world poverty and global aid, and you’d still be left with one thoroughly enjoyable romance.

While Curtis invented the characters, it’s the film’s two stars that bring them to life so expertly. Bill Nighy plays Lawrence, bringing with him a sad sack sensibility that draws us closer to him the first second he appears on screen. We know more about this man through Nighy’s body language than we do from his dialogue (watch for the great sequence in which Lawrence anxiously debates whether or not to leave his tie on for his lunch date with Gena). With just one look, we can see Lawrence’s heart break, or be reborn.

And despite his quiet demeanor, Lawrence seems to always know exactly what to say: upon arriving at a swank dinner party, he comforts Gena by informing her that “anything you say will be more interesting then everything they’ve ever said.” It’s that brilliant Curtis dialogue again, telling us that this man of few words always knows what to say when it matters.

For Gena, we get Kelly Macdonald, an actress so unbearably lovely that it’s a cinch to see why Lawrence would fall for her instantly. There’s a great line of throwaway dialogue that describes the difference between “pretty” and “beautiful,” and Macdonald is most certainly the latter. But more than that, she’s a marvelous actress. As with her turns in “Gosford Park” and “Two Family House” (among others), here Macdonald reveals that she is without equal when it comes to playing the shy, quiet type. Like Nighy, she leaves so much to body language. And like Nighy, she does it flawlessly.

Both characters have an air of inescapable sadness, a sense of disconnect from the rest of the world that brings to mind comparisons to “Lost In Translation.” Like that great work, “The Girl In the Café” allows the audience to find comfort in knowing that these two people have finally found comfort in each other. Similarities end there, more or less, but it is a comparison that’s worth noting. Both films succeed on their abilities to craft complex characters and then to get audiences to connect with them on the deepest of levels.

I have mentioned very little about the movie’s political agenda. This is because the filmmakers present their case so well that any attempts to duplicate what they have to say would seem, to me, to lose impact. Also, I fear that telling readers how the movie berates the G8 Summit for having too few results and how it packs on the depressing statistics regarding the preventable deaths caused by AIDS, poverty, and starvation might put off some who may assume that this is nothing more than some hippie tirade. Believe me, it is not; the politics here are not based on left or right, and are easily accessible to all. The movie’s ultimate message, in fact, isn’t about which side is right, but about the power of one voice: to remain silent is a curse, to speak up is a great victory.

Nighy, Macdonald, and Curtis have never been better than in their work here. Yates, meanwhile, is a director with whom I am not familiar (all I know is that he’s been hired to direct the fifth “Harry Potter” movie), so I will merely state that he does a masterful job presenting the material, delivering two remarkable performances, controlling the pace of the work with spot-on precision, using the Icelandic backdrop as an opportunity for some stunning visuals. The four of them make it impossible to turn away from the central characters, whatever they do. As such, “The Girl In the Café” is a modest jewel of a film, captivating in its romance, its drama, its comedy, its commentary.

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