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Boy meets worldly girl

Richard Curtis, the writer of such light fare as 'Notting Hill,' mixes a serious social theme with romance this time.

June 08, 2005|Choire Sicha | Special to The Times

There is no short supply, whether in Los Angeles or London, of filmmakers and actors, playwrights and theatricals who harbor serious political beliefs. Where most have faltered, or not bothered to try at all, is in using their art (and their commerce) in service of their civics.

This is why chat show hosts lambaste actors who speak out on elections or global goings-on: The disconnect between the sitcom or the horror flick and global statesmanship is clearly mockable. The jeremiads of Tony Kushner and a few others aside, we live in the age of the faintly sociological sitcom, the faux-political two-act.

London-based Richard Curtis -- the writer of "Notting Hill," "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Love Actually" -- also enjoyed, until recently, a bifurcation between his work and his concerns. (Of course, he's always put his money and time where his heart is, as a co-founder of Comic Relief, which enlists U.K. folk into fundraising work.)

But, until now, his film work -- "Bridget Jones's Diary," anyone? -- has, even despite his longtime eschewal of Hollywood's mores, largely been ignorant of concerns beyond fat thighs and the rocky roads of romance. He's the reigning king and perhaps most intelligent practitioner of boy-meets-girl. But "The Girl in the Cafe," which will premiere on HBO on June 25, at last, and perhaps uncomfortably, integrates Mr. Curtis in the service of both meet-cute and world poverty.

Half romantic comedy and half inculcation, the film follows a lonely civil servant -- played by Bill Nighy -- desperately crunching financial data for an upcoming G8 conference fictitiously set in Iceland. He meets a pretty, quiet young thing (Kelly Macdonald) and, impulsively, takes her along to Reykjavik, where she becomes slightly less quiet. In fact, she calmly decimates the world leaders as they convene with a simple, repetitive message: a child dies, needlessly, of poverty every three seconds. She is, of course, evicted.

The technique enlisted by Curtis for this venture is a matter-of-fact variation of the classic protesters cry of "Shame!" But in Curtis' case, as presented by the young everywoman from the cafe, the shame is quite carefully doled out. On the eve of the G8 summit being hosted in Scotland July 6-8, Curtis' script is charitable to the English representatives, and echoes the Blair government's advocacy for the United Nation's "Millennium Goals," which are intended to eliminate extreme poverty and greatly reduce child mortality.

Curtis was out in the garden, at the country house in Suffolk, recently in the early evening. Even over the phone, birds could be heard complimenting his affable chat. "I think in some ways," he said, "yeah, I wrote it in order to get the message across. Instinctively, being who I am, it came out in something like the same form like other things that I've done. And I think that's good. To become a political writer would have been two steps too far instead of one.

"The strange thing," he said, "was I did have this story up my sleeve. It was a film I was thinking of writing at some point. It was a romance that was in my head. I'd originally thought of it as an American film. [In my mind,] it was going to be Dustin Hoffman and a white-toothed girl with big hair."

There is essentially no difference in writing a film that makes its politics overt, Curtis said.

"Trying to reconcile the love story with the political story -- it was just another movie problem. It's the same as "Love Actually," it was the same as tying nine stories together.... I think I've always tried in the films to be -- though they're accused of being the opposite -- but they're quite realistic films. I've never done any plot devices, really."

Which raises a question -- which went unasked -- why others similarly situated, or Curtis previously, don't often cross the line to political instruction.

"I obviously wouldn't put this [film] in the same bracket," said Curtis, "but the political movies that I admire, like ... 'The Killing Fields,' or the new movies about Rwanda, they tend to be made about things a long time ago. They tend to be made in retrospect. People express their passionate anger about things that are past. They're very powerful about warning you about things happening again -- they don't deal with the crisis of the moment. It would be interesting to me if more people tried to do that, actually made things about now. The problem with now, is it's uncertain."

Of course: "If the G8 doesn't go well, our film may seem slightly peculiar."

Although he rumbled something about perhaps writing a play, Curtis has, he reports, no immediate plans beyond helping his compatriots in the coalition Make Poverty History, including Bob Geldof and Bono, who hope to use the G8 summit to raise awareness about poverty in Africa. He's also helping Geldof with the last-minute preparations for Geldof's Live 8 concerts being held worldwide on July 2 and also aimed at drumming up G8 support for African relief.

Curtis said of the G8 leaders: "We hope those guys will feel the weight of expectation and the weight of history. And if they step out and say 'We canceled a third of remaining debt,' we'll say that's not what we asked for and that's not what you promised. And we're going to be waiting."

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