Fans of last year's Secrets and Lies
may have thought they had discovered a new auteur in director
Mike Leigh, a social commentator with a deft touch for finely
drawn characters and the legendary understated British humor.
Leigh, however, has actually been cranking out brilliant, quirky,
yet keenly observed comedies and dramas in England for more than
20 years, first on British television and lately for the big
screen, as in his other theatrical releases Naked, Life
Is Sweet, and High Hopes.
His latest, Career Girls, is a
worthy addition to his oeuvre. A film at various times about
friendship, family, work, adolescence, maturation, love, work,
and Thatcher-era despondency, its artistry lies in the way Leigh
subtly provokes ideas in the viewers' heads without outright
The slight story concerns the
weekend-long reunion of two college flatmates, Hannah (Katrin
Cartlidge) and Annie (Lynda Steadman). The two haven't seen each
other in six years, and in the film's opening moments, as the
pair struggle uneasily to reestablish their bond, Leigh's editing
and the performances of Cartlidge and Steadman combine to create
a nervous tension that is as uncomfortable to watch as such
moments are to experience.
As the film unravels, however, the two
women rediscover the qualities in each other that made such
different types the best of friends.
Through flashbacks, we see that during
college Annie is the painfully sensitive one. Scarred through
most of her adolescence by an unsightly skin condition, Annie is
socially awkward and openly neurotic, constantly hanging her head
down low to avoid the stares of others.
Hannah, on the other hand, is tough as
leather, hardened by life with her alcoholic mother and almost
incapable of love. But something in the overly vulnerable Annie
brings out her protective instincts.
Though this central relationship is a
bit obvious, Leigh's writing keeps the work a float.
As Hannah and Annie go through their
weekend together, the film flashes back to their college years,
sparked in part by their encounters with a number of people from
their shared past: a boorish lover that Hannah gave to Annie when
she fell for him, a mildly-retarded suitor of Annie's, and even
the third flatmate they dumped after their first year in college.
Besides chronicling the pair's
friendship from its neurotic beginning to their goodbyes at the
end of college, the flashbacks help tell the tale of perhaps that
most pivotal point in a person's life: those trepid years between
the horrors of adolescence and the empowering confidence of young
adulthood. And in showing Hannah and Annie as they enter this
stage and at the end of it, Cartlidge and Steadman deliver
performances that are consistent and wonderfully contrast their
characters' youthful selves with their self-assured adult
Of course, the older Hannah and Annie
are far from complete adults. Hannah still struggles with her
inability to be intimate. Annie hasn't yet fully established
herself as a completely independent adult. And both are less than
thrilled with their middle-class, uninvolving jobs. But perhaps
because of what they learned from each other, these girls are off
to promising careers.