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Review: The Girl in the Café (Drivel, actually)


30th June 2005

John McAnulty

Buoyed by the media blitz surrounding the G8 summit, by the knowledge that the writer, Richard Curtis, is a leading dramatist (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually), a leading figure in the Live 8 movement and the originator of the ‘Make Poverty History’ slogan, the viewer slips gently and easily into an expensive and lavish production supported by an extremely talented cast and outstanding photography that quickly creates a mythic, dream-like quality.

In this dream-like state the viewer glides through the plot: A chance encounter in a café leads a working-class girl (Kelly McDonald) to travel to the G8 summit with idealistic civil servant (Bill Nighy), a man corroded by the failure of the political system to deliver the bright ideals he once believed in.

At the summit the girl in the café breaks through the diplomatic and social niceties to speak plainly and bring the assembled world leaders face to face with the suffering of the African people. The drama ends on a cliff-hanger. Will the world leaders respond?

Well before we reach this climax the viewer begins to wake from the dream. They begin to share the very evident discomfort of the leading actors, forced into blank, leaden and confused performances. Finally the truth strikes home. The roles they are asked to act are not characters at all, but stereotypical myths bound by the rigid rules of a piece of propaganda.

When we see that the characters are unbelievable we soon realise that this is because the situation is unbelievable. Richard Curtis has finally filled in the missing section of the ‘Make Poverty History’ slogan. The slogan is ‘George Bush, please make poverty history’!

At that moment drama becomes farce. Kelly McDonald is forced to babble nonsense explaining that the rulers of the world mean well, but poverty continues to exist because they are weak and are constrained by diplomacy and bureaucracy. But even the languid viewer, on the edge of sleep, will protest that the G8 is in reality the gathering of the imperialist powers and their allies and that Bush and Blair, the butchers of Fallujah, are hardly guided by humanitarian concerns. Wide awake, the viewer might protest that Gordon Brown, a hero figure in the piece, has well-advanced plans, not to end poverty in Africa, but to extend it in Britain through attacks on public service workers and on pensions. 

The critique that the piece badly needed to make of G8 might extend to suggest that debt relief has a great deal to do with protecting the interests of Western banks, that the plan envisages paying for the debt relief by taking the money from aid budgets, that tariff barriers prevent African produce trading fairly on the world market and that aid has been used to push through a neo-liberal agenda that privatises public resources, enriches the West and further impoverishes Africa. 

A member of the nation that produced Bono and Sir Bob Geldof cannot be overly critical of Richard Curtis, but it is evident that a piece like ‘Love Actually’ does not represent a carefully crafted concoction, but is simply representative of a saccharine drivel that emerges naturally.

‘The Girl in the Café’ points out a central weakness of the global justice movement. The pop idols have inflated egos and an inflated position at the head of the movement, and they are likely to use that position at any moment to sabotage the movement simply because, as Richard Curtis shows, in their heart of hearts they are inside the tent lobbying, court jesters to the imperialist powers, rather than part of a movement attempting the overthrow of capitalism and imperialism.

Now that really would make poverty history!


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