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The Girl in the Café

A typical Richard Curtis romance movie is alive with quirky characters and rousing situations. At the center of this is a simple story between two people (or, in the case of Love, Actually, several of such pairs). And it's this simple story which Curtis repeatedly tells with such humanity that only a cold, heartless zombie could fail to be moved. In HBO's The Girl in the Café, which debuted on Sunday, Curtis strips away the charming Hugh Grant antics and the idyllic settings to tell the story of two unlikely candidates for love against the backdrop of the G8 Summit in Reykjavík. The film rests entirely upon these two, and hangs in the enormous pauses between them.

Bill Nighy (recently, Slartibartfast in Hitchhiker's Guide) is Lawrence, an analyst in the British Prime Minister's office, and Kelly Macdonald plays Gina, the young woman with whom he discovers a chance friendship. Macdonald stole my heart in a powerhouse guest appearance on Alias this year, and shows no signs of returning it. She speaks with a musical, fluttery Scottish accent – which can sound brusque in the wrong hands, but her soothing, matter-of-fact delivery makes it delicate and inviting. Both characters are entirely withdrawn, and their body language conveys their vulnerability whenever they're in the presence of others – or even completely alone. Almost the entire film is spoken in hushed tones and hesitant interjections.

Lawrence is a number cruncher, a workaholic, and a creature of habit. Gina is an entirely blank slate. She shares no details about herself, but seems happy to pass the time talking with Lawrence. Both characters are so skittish and accommodating that for half the story it's hard to tell if either is just being too polite to leave. (They say, "No, it's fine," more often than they say, "Hello.") Ultimately, it's their shared isolation that bonds them – he needs someone to talk to and she'll voraciously soak up any conversation she can get, eager to learn about something outside of her own past. The comfort of each other's company nourishes them, even if they're unsure how to respond to it. Their story unfolds with utmost restraint, meanwhile Gina learns about Lawrence's job and his frustration with the red tape that restricts any tangible progress. He works on the Millennium Development Goals, announced at G8 in 2000 as an ambitious promise to end extreme poverty in the world by 2015. These days, security concerns top the agenda and world leaders are worried about the global economy – not an easy time to collect pledges for African aid. Lawrence shoulders tremendous disappointment in himself and his colleagues, but has become resigned to the futility of his aims. Little by little, the weight of this accumulates on Gina as well – the film is built out of very small moments, but every time he relates another setback, her face registers his defeat. Seeing his despair reflected back at him, Lawrence sinks deeper into disappointment, and Gina's heart goes out to him (as well as the tens of millions of starving children who have become just another statistic in his world).

The film's activist message and its romantic story share the same heart, and it's not always a stable symbiotic relationship. Discussions of world hunger and inequity in subsidies are meaningful, but often sound like speeches, even with the precious humanity Macdonald adds. Is the poverty crusade the focus of the film, or is it a device to frustrate the development of the relationship? It's both, and sometimes that creates a strain. But Curtis slowly adds more and more tension into the empty space between them, like a pressure cooker rising to a boil. It's maddening to watch two people who refuse to talk about their feelings for each other and just figure it out – I could relate, having only been in relationships that refuse to fit any normal label. The ambiguity of their relationship holds the audience captive, and every shared moment is full of possibility. It's an effective trick; after starving for so long, the tiniest morsel is an explosion of flavor – the way a bared wrist could be so erotic in the buttoned-up world of The Age of Innocence. The first moment Gina opens up to Lawrence rivals any in recent memory for its power to take my breath away – quite literally. (I was immediately reminded of the reaction I had to "I'm your new friend, Sam," in Garden State.) The principal success of The Girl in the Café is that the audience can become invested in such an unlikely romantic pairing; Curtis layers so much compassion and heartache into the characters that it's not about the age difference or any such physical concern. You simply see how badly each needs the other and you want them to release one another from their respective shells.

In Lawrence, Gina finds a window to the enormity and complexity of world affairs – something to believe in as she struggles to define herself. In her, he gains a fresh perspective of the drudgery to which he's become so accustomed. She challenges Lawrence to demand the truth from himself, about his judgment in his career and his judgment of her. Can he stand up for what he believes despite the consequences? Can he trust his feelings for her despite the fact that they hardly know each other? In this film, Curtis rarely delivers the expected, so finding the answers to these questions is a powerful and surprising journey.

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