Review: Career Girls [ 1997] - dir. Mike Leigh

Director Mike Leigh follows up his Oscar-nominated SECRETS AND LIES with CAREER GIRLS, a bittersweet drama that deals with the passage of time between two friends. Annie (Lynda Steadman) and Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) were college roommates in London. Six years later, Annie is taking the train back into London to reunite with her friend. The resulting connection sparks flashbacks from the past, where we learn that Annie was even more shy and defensive than she is currently.

The British writer-director Mike Leigh is a strong-willed auteur of the grubby (David Thewlis in Naked), the misfit (High Hopes), and the economically impoverished (Life Is Sweet). Indeed, the accessible, emotional Secrets & Lies still remains almost the exception in Leigh's bleak, twisty universe of hard to love characters. Career Girls is more like the rule: It isn't easy to even begin to understand these two women. But the effort rewards the viewer with a satisfying cinematic take on the resiliency and therapeutic importance of friendship.

The flashbacks to Hannah's and Annie's raw younger days in the mid-1980s (their shared miseries and pleasures, their fumbles with boys) occur during an overnight trip Annie, the northerner, makes to London to see Hannah, after a six year sabbatical from their friendship. Those half-dozen years have smoothed the former roommates' roughest edges (a maturation handled beautifully in the change to a smoother, more flowing shooting style from cinematographer Dick Pope). Annie, once plagued by a shyness inducing case of eczema we now find with a clear face and a new found ability to look at others without shrinking. Hannah has learned to control her abrasive tongue. The two single working women — their unspecified professions hardly matter — are shy with each other at first but reconnect quickly enough. Rattling around on adventures, they coincidentally cross paths with significant figures from their shared past (including, most poignantly, a large, sensitive, sadly damaged fellow, played with a terrifying display of tics by Mark Benton). Then Annie returns home. In the end, Leigh seems to suggest, the friends are as close as lovers, more secure in their companionship than they are with anyone else in their solo lives.

Because his dramas are so famously actor intensive, a Mike Leigh production is only as compelling as his players. In Cartlidge, who previously costarred in Leigh's Naked and played sister-in-law to Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, the director collaborates with an actress of almost intimidating intensity (capturing the spirit of former Leigh leading lady and wife Alison Steadman at her best); there's so much coming out of Cartlidge in her tour de force performance — especially in the flashback scenes — that it's sometimes difficult to see the whole character, and only after Hannah mellows does she come into clear(er) view. But Cartlidge's ferocity is effectively framed by the quieter work of Steadman, Leigh's own real-life daughter, making her film debut. Steadman lets the terrified, yearning younger Annie show through the composure of the older. And in doing so, she becomes, in a way, the key to Leigh's story. Proving that the sophisticated veneers of modern career girls inevitably cover messes of loneliness and need.


Shannon said...

I really want to see this!!!! Hope this comes home with you!!!???? PLEASE???

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