Sex and the Civil Servant: Plot Mixes Love With Debt Relief


Only the man who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill would have the hubris to situate a romantic comedy in a barren setting like the G-8 political summit. Richard Curtis’s The Girl in the Café airs here a week before this year’s G-8 meeting (the site of violent anti-globalization protests in 2001) and the Live 8 concerts around the world. Unlike Curtis’s usual manipulative froth, this movie comes freighted with noble intent. It’s manipulative with a purpose, aiming to tweak our heartstrings so we’ll pressure politicians to cancel third-world debt and implement “millennium goals” that would drastically reduce child mortality.

As far as campaigns to save the world go, this is a pretty weak salvo, but two wonderfully understated performances make The Girl in the Café watchable. Bill Nighy plays Lawrence, a lonely civil servant in Britain’s finance ministry, who strikes up a friendship with Gina (Kelly McDonald), an amiable young woman, in a local café. In a rare act of impulsiveness, Lawrence asks Gina to accompany him to G-8 meetings in Iceland. The two repressed Brits bristle with awkwardness as they negotiate a shared hotel room. But Gina’s timidity bizarrely disappears as soon as she comes into contact with Lawrence’s colleagues. At hushed cocktail parties and dinners, she pluckily reminds these world leaders that a child dies every three seconds and warns that if they don’t push through historic reforms, “People will look back and say, ‘What were you thinking of? Shame on you for doing nothing.’ ” The unlikelihood of this scenario—a mysterious girl infiltrating the highest echelons of power and shaming the people who run the world—reveals the plot as a contrivance, a mere delivery system for Curtis’s message.

The movie remains as airless as Lawrence’s ziplocked hotel and conference settings. People reel off statistics or passionate platitudes without supplying enough background information for viewers to understand why, for instance, countries like the U.S. might oppose bailing Africa out. And because Curtis squeezes all this into his usual inhibited-Brits date movie template, the personal questions carry as much weight as the political ones: Is Gina using Lawrence to infiltrate the conference? Will the world reduce debt? Will they have sex?