“The Girl in the Cafe" was touted as being sort of like “Lost in Translation,” which I didn’t like. Critics these days can’t seem to tell much beyond the most obvious, which is that both movies are about an older guy and a young girl in a hotel world that encourages romantic attachments. But the tone, purpose and enactment of this idea is totally different.
Beyond the plot, “The Girl in the Cafe” -- as the more perceptive imdb.com critics noted -- is almost completely dependent on the casting. Bill Nighy, surely the most twitchy tall handsome slightly balding actor with fine stage enunciation that we have, meets the earnest Scots serene-but-concerned young woman, Kelly McDonald, who is between lives. The man happens to be a gray shadow, what they call these days a “quant” meaning a quantifier, a math guy. His life is no life. He sits down across from “Gina” because there is no other seat in a crowded coffee shop, and their very shyness is a tie between them. Of course, the relationship continues, Nighy’s character carefully introducing himself every time he calls, sometimes after just leaving her a few hours earlier. When they come a unexpected step closer together, this guy does an amazing scissors-jump that shows what he’s repressing -- except for those escaping twitches.
Then comes the beginning of the real plot. He decides to take his new friend to a G8 summit in Reykjavik where a rich tapestry of land surrounds an absolutely abstract and geometric hotel. We do the usual “It Happened One Night” nonsense, suspending disbelief but not as much as the other members of the Brit delegation, who treat Nighy like a slightly dim child -- except for the women who like Gina immediately.
Instead of going shopping with her new friends, Gina settles down to read the presentation papers and watch the televised proceedings. She is not baffled nor daunted, but sees right away that the delegates are supposed to seem to move ahead while preserving the status quo. No actress since Audrey Hepburn has so convincingly portrayed the wide-eyed young woman who graciously takes the hand of the big shot and then kindly asks, “Why is it that you’re wearing no clothes?” (Rachel Weitz in “The Constant Gardener” was not so innocent or kind.)
Even the crisis-point is reached in a low key, but the action in this movie happens IN the delegates, who ARE people of conscience, who ARE having trouble sleeping like Bill Nighy, who DO know what they could do, but are afraid of jumping, trained to be obedient no-risk poker players. One has to keep in mind that this is a British television movie and that it was timed to coincide with the real G-8 summit on world poverty in 2005.
In short, this is the plea to the authorities that is mimed at the major formal dinner, where McDonald looks absolutely elegant except that her hair up-do has a tiny bit of a tuft sticking out and her dress IS a teeny bit tight. She doesn’t stand and shout or overturn the table. Just quietly and reasonably speaks her piece. And no one interrupts until the end when a hand falls on her shoulder. In fact, the faces of the delegates are the real story. The director says that his theory of England is that the whole place is an iceberg, where the real gravity and weight is unseen beneath. This is palpable as these polite diplomats sit frozen in place at the banquet table.
On imdb.com there are 130 reviews and reactions, maybe evenly split between the cynics who hated it and the idealists who loved it. They would be happy to tear the movie in half, the humorous whimsy of the first part on one side and the challenge to high government on the other, which perhaps tells us more about where society is right now than anything about the movie.
We never see Africa. There’s no girl-in-grisly-circumstances as there is in “Constant Gardener” and “Spy Game.” We hear some statistics. Humorously told. The girl is removed. All the man can do is accompany her to the airport. And yet everything is changed somehow, a scale has shifted. So this is a morality play, as surely as if it were acted out in medieval times with a guy in a devil suit pitching sinners into a mock hell while declaiming from a traveling wagon stage. And yet it shows that the source of morality is in this quiet tenderness between people. The courage to reach out can be just across a table or across a banquet hall or across the continents.
Iceland was chosen because the real G8 that coincided with this television drama was NOT in Iceland and because Iceland is so removed from our ordinary assumptions and because there’s a magical quality about all the mist and the slant-light and the independence of the people. They have a distinctly moral quality as a country, which is why it’s hard to see them so hammered by this recent financial collapse.
But the point the movie makes about poverty in Africa is as real right now as it was in 2005 when the movie aired. I get a little impatient about my new way of eating, our whole country is upset about how much food costs, food banks are complaining that the food is going out faster than it’s coming in, but we are NOT starving by the millions in this country. Africans are, if they don’t die of AIDS first, just as was predicted years ago by the opponents of overpopulation. The most frustrating aspect of it is that we DO have enough food -- we do NOT have the will to get it where it needs to be and we do NOT act strategically to help countries feed themselves. And we’ve gone into overload about diseases -- our fingers are in our ears.
These two actors, Kelly MacDonald and Bill Nighy, were also at about this time in their lives shooting “State of Play,” which is a masterful long series about the interplay of politics, journalism, and the difficulties of intimacy. It’s all lies and secrecy and surprises. In that movie Nighy is the newspaper editor, an old hand, one who sees through all the naughty bits and cuts to the chase, absolutely confident. MacDonald also is in pursuit of the truth, as dedicated, earnest, and intent on asking the key questions as she is in this movie. The director says that the two actors became quite close and I’m sure that’s true. The tenderness and careful attention between the two of them is acting, true, but it draws on reality. It’s remarkable that so many members of our society resist this kind of connection, both on the personal level and as a society.