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‘Girl in the Cafe’ is a film on a mission

HBO film tells the story of a couple at the G-8 summit
/ Source: The Associated Press

No doubt about it: “The Girl in the Cafe” is the best romantic comedy set at a G-8 summit you’re ever likely to see.

But it’s more than that. Besides packing a weighty message — significant reduction in global poverty and infant mortality is now within the grasp of world leaders — this lovely film can hold its own against any love story as it depicts a mismatched couple struggling to connect.

The winsome, enigmatic girl, Gina, is played by Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, and makes an ideally unexpected soul mate for Lawrence, the lonely, middle-aged British bureaucrat played to perfection by Bill Nighy (“Love Actually” and the Peabody Award-winning BBC miniseries “State of Play”).

Exploring matters of the heart, “The Girl in the Cafe” (which premieres 8 p.m. ET Saturday on HBO) has a timeless flavor engagingly at odds with the urgency of its mission. It is pegged to an event it dramatizes in its own heroic terms that will take place for real on July 6 — the leaders of the world’s richest and most powerful countries convene in Scotland for the Group of Eight summit.

At that gathering, President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the heads of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia will vote on whether to allocate sufficient money to help impoverished African countries.

“This film is an attempt to lobby the eight men who will sit in one room and could literally save hundreds of millions of lives,” says Nighy.

During a recent interview in Manhattan, Nighy has plenty to say on the subject. Then modesty overtakes his passion. “I’m no expert on foreign affairs or international poverty programs,” he concedes. “I’m just an actor who got lucky and got a gig with a great man.”

The Bob Geldof of filmHe's talking about Richard Curtis, whose credits include the screenplays for “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill” as well as writing and directing “Love Actually.” Spurred by the poverty-relief cause to which he was already channeling much of his time, Curtis wrote “The Girl in the Cafe” expressly to set the stage for this year’s G-8 Summit.

Curtis is in league with the likes of Bob Geldof, who’s galvanized the Live 8 concerts scheduled in cities around the world on July 2 — the same day a mass procession is scheduled to encircle the Scottish city of Edinburgh.

Also on July 2, CNN will air a one-hour special on global poverty including clips from “The Girl in the Cafe,” as well as an interview with Blair, who has been given a copy of the film and is expected to discuss it.

An inspiring exercise in agitprop the film may be, but Nighy hopes it’s also seen as “a perfectly respectable piece of comedy entertainment.”

“If someone asks you, ‘What did you see last night?’ I hope you wouldn’t answer, ‘Oh, this movie that explained the Africa situation to me.’ The film is as much as anything about seeing an unlikely couple attempting some kind of tender exchange.”

Indeed, the viewer is liable to become so swept up in this quirky boy-meets-girl tale that the moral of the film hits home with full force only after the final fade-out.

Directed by Richard Yates (who directed Nighy and Macdonald in “State of Play”), “The Girl in the Cafe” throws Gina and Lawrence together when, by chance, they share a table at a crowded London eatery.

Gina is withdrawn, melancholy and clearly at loose ends. Lawrence, a quarter-century her senior and in a constant state of social unease, finds refuge in his job as an assistant to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

One thing leads to another with Gina, and Lawrence — startling himself — asks her to accompany him to the upcoming G-8 Summit, which in the film is taking place in Reykjavik, Iceland. Once they arrive, Gina overcomes her shyness as she learns from Lawrence what the conference could potentially accomplish, and then causes a stir when she speaks out to the leaders on behalf of starving children.

Meanwhile, Lawrence is roused no less than mortified. “I think the woman in question was, in broad terms, correct,” he manages to tell his boss.

Nighy gets a chance to stretchIt’s a masterful performance by Nighy. With his tall, reedy frame and lived-in-looking face, he imbues Lawrence with pitiable awkwardness offset by flashes of inadvertent charm. (“Don’t think because I’m not saying much,” he haltingly tells Gina in the film’s sweetest scene, “that I wouldn’t like to say a lot.”)

In his rare turn as a leading man, the 54-year-old actor makes Lawrence’s eccentricities — lots of twitches, sentence fragments and averted glances — cohesive parts of an authentic whole.

“This kind of character is very close to my heart,” Nighy says. “I have a great enthusiasm for the kind of people who are isolated by their self-consciousness. It’s the kind of role that I don’t normally get asked to play. Weirdly, as far as I’m concerned, I usually play people at the other end of social behavior: who are brash and confident and sort of know what’s happening.”

A veteran character actor who got his start on the stage and then found fame on British television, Nighy won a new level of attention for his raucous aging rock star in the 2003 comedy “Love Actually.” He recently appeared as planet builder Slartibartfast in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and, playing villainous Davy Jones, is currently shooting back-to-back sequels of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Courtly with a self-deprecating wit, Nighy retains traces of his rakish past, even as he counts among his greatest feats kicking booze in the early 1990s, and cigarettes two years ago.

“I remain in caffeine management,” he then admits, his cup of coffee and Coke in close reach.

But with mock pride he announces that “The Girl in the Cafe” was shot during a brief period early this year when he kicked caffeine, too. It’s irrefutable proof: Starring in a film with heart and righteousness, this is Nighy as you have never seen him before.