A charmingly modest and understated movie about an unlikely relationship that starts off as a conventional meet-cute and then goes somewhere unexpected.
For a little-known British TV film The Girl In the Cafe has an impressive roster, including screenwriter Richard Curtis (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill, Love Actually), director David Yates who directed the last four Harry Potter movies, and the rather underrated talents of Bill Nighy and Kelly Macdonald. The restrained and compelling performances from the latter two is what ultimately makes the movie such a refreshing little gem.
Nighy plays Lawrence, a lonely civil servant working for the British Chancellor. One day, as he takes a break from the world of corridors, briefcases and meetings, Lawrence finds himself sharing a table at a cafe with a Scottish girl named Gina. An endearingly awkward conversation ensues, and as his coffee break draws to a close Lawrence somehow finds courage to ask Gina out on a series of similarly awkward dates. Lawrence is unambiguously smitten, while Gina, with her reserve and reluctance to share much about herself, is harder to read. Eventually, their shy and tentative relationship takes a turn when Lawrence impulsively asks Gina to accompany him to the G8 Summit in Reykjavík.
Once Lawrence and Gina are in Iceland, it becomes clear that The Girl In the Cafe has a bigger ambition than initially suspected – to be a Big Issue film as well as romantic drama. I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t get a knee-jerk oh no reaction from me, as in oh no now this movie is going to get preachy and unbearable. Contrary to my fears though, the political angle never tramples over the delicate central relationship, and while the sentiments expressed might be a tad simplistic and naive, it’s also perhaps unfair to expect a movie like this to explore all the complexities and nuances of the extreme poverty.
Bill Nighy, who is probably more widely known for playing wild and out-there characters, is wonderful as gentle and self-deprecating Lawrence. Gina meanwhile remains something of an enigma until the very end of the movie, where her motivations for her very personal stance are made clear, but Macdonald’s performance as a haunted yet tough young woman perfectly complements Nighy’s and their characters’ improbable/impossible relationship can’t help but move. David Yates makes the most of the movie’s limited settings and slips in a few well-composed and stylish shots, and a song by Sigur Rós from one of my all-time favourite albums was a nice Icelandic touch.