Director Mike Leigh's 'Career Girls' Captures Friendship On Film
By Stacey Richter
WITH CAREER GIRLS, director Mike Leigh has made a funny, engaging film on the theme of friendship between women which has an almost eerie sense of truthfulness to it. The film's rambling, parallel structure takes a little getting used to, but once the story settles in, it reveals itself to be a quiet, graceful tale that spins love and hope out of chaos.
Leigh has an idiosyncratic style of filmmaking that produces quirky, layered films. Rather than writing a script, he collaborates with actors to produce extensive backgrounds for characters. Leigh's actors basically need to know how often their characters brush their teeth, even if there isn't any toothbrushing in the movie. Starting with this collaboration and a few basic ideas, Leigh shapes scenes and a story, though he claims there's very little improvisation done by the time the cameras start rolling.
This process helps account for the sense of emotional accuracy running through Career Girls (as well as Leigh's other films like Secrets and Lies). So much rings true in the substance of the friendship between Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) and Annie (Lynda Steadman), two close friends who haven't seen each other during the six years since they graduated from the university. Leigh grasps nuances in their relationship with a kind of novelistic depth and resonance that's rarely represented on film, much less by a male filmmaker. The way the women alight on the hot spots of femininity--their mothers, their cooking ability, work, their relationships with men--all have an uncanny sense of familiarity that must surely owe a debt to Leigh's openness to input from Cartlidge and Steadman.
Career Girls takes place during a weekend Annie spends in London with Hannah, her old friend and roommate. As Annie's train pulls in to the station, she flashes back to her student days when she first met the manic, self-obsessed, and very funny Hannah. The scenes showing Hannah and Annie as students are probably the best in the movie--a funny and embarrassing document of youth and style in the '80s. The girls seem barely out of adolescence as they slouch around in asymmetrical haircuts, listening to The Cure (and nothing but The Cure) while vainly trying to apply intellectual theories to the disorder of their lives. Annie has a nervous skin condition and is a compulsive hair-flipper; Hannah is mean, speaks in funny voices and has the irksome habit of using her hand as a talking puppet. Both seem too nervous to survive, even just college.
But survive they do, and the contrast between the chaotic confusion that sees them through the '80s and the relative serenity that finds them at age 30 is the main engine of the film. As the story bounces back and forth through time, we see that at 30, Annie retains vestigial remnants of her hair-flipping tic and Hannah is still gruff, but as the story progresses Leigh shows us, slowly and naturally, how the two have gained the perspective they need to understand themselves and each other. This is facilitated by an absurd number of chance meetings with characters from the old days: A lover the two girls swapped (he's an asshole real estate agent who doesn't remember either of them), their sweet but eccentric friend Ricky (terrifically played by Mark Benton), and an old roommate. Though the number of chance encounters Annie and Hannah have is ridiculous, it somehow makes sense in the context of the film--there's a kind of A Christmas Carol feeling, as though some benevolent force were guiding the two back over the rocky points of their lives so that they can learn from them.
It's really the wonderful acting, though, that makes this film so out-of-the-ordinary. Katrin Cartlidge manages to infuse the rather cruel Hannah with such wild energy and vulnerability that it's impossible not to like her. Lynda Steadman is delightfully twitchy and broken as Annie, the more sensitive friend. Both women give big, exaggerated performances that nonetheless ring true; all the performances play on much the same pitch, something Leigh missed in Secret and Lies. To accompany these big performances, Leigh has the grace to create a simple but layered story with a natural sense of drama. Potentially explosive subtext--Annie was sexually abused as a child--is pretty much left in the background. Career Girls never devolves into soap opera, but remains a focused, complex portrayal of a friendship.
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