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'Cafe' romance turns into a worldly affair

It's tempting to call HBO's ''The Girl in the Cafe" a ''lovely little film." But that lovely little phrase doesn't quite capture its prickly underside, the tiny jabs of truth it offers along its silky way. Written by Richard Curtis, who wrote ''Four Weddings and a Funeral" and ''Notting Hill," the movie is one of his typically warm romances about two lost souls. But it's set at a high-stakes G8 economic summit in Iceland, and it winds up making a few needle-sharp points about the failings of global bureaucracy. What begins as a softly personal love story extends seamlessly into hard politics.

In the movie, which premieres tonight at 8, Bill Nighy stars as Lawrence, the guy who meets the girl in the cafe. You may think you don't know who Nighy is, but odds are you've seen him in one ''Masterpiece Theatre" or another, or as the aging rocker in ''Love Actually," which was written and directed by Curtis. He's something of a chameleon, and his Lawrence looks nothing like the confident men he has tended to play. A number cruncher for the British government, Lawrence is a spectacle of awkwardness and painfully halting conversation. He's an ascetic, and when he accidentally sits across from Gina (Kelly Macdonald) over tea, he can't quite tolerate the fact that he's attracted to her and that she might like him back. Writhing with discomfort, he's a classic nebbish.

Watching Nighy is, in itself, entertaining enough. With masterful eye maneuvering, he shows how Lawrence clearly sees the people around him, even while he can't quite look straight at them. But Macdonald is also compelling, in a glum way. She makes Gina into a fierce young woman who has been cowed by mysterious events in her past. While the older Lawrence is transparent from the moment we see him, Gina emerges slowly, and fascinatingly. She is in the midst of hidden inner shifts, and her desire to be with Lawrence represents a new direction for her.

Most of the movie takes place in a Reykjavik hotel, where political leaders have gathered to address world poverty, hunger, and disease. Lawrence is attending with his boss, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he has brought Gina with him even though they've only recently met. As they connect in their disconnected way, amid the carpeted halls and institutional decor of hotelworld, the movie looks a little like ''Lost in Translation." But it is less grandly existential, less visually poetic, less insular. What happens in the hotel is both bittersweet and humanitarian. ''The Girl in the Cafe" is a lovely little film, and a little something more.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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