Monday, 2 August 2010

Career Girls, Mike Leigh, UK/ France 1997

Ever since it was made, Career Girls, Mike Leigh's follow-up after his triumph at the Cannes Film Festival with Secrets and Lies the year before, has somehow always been eclipsed by his more high-profile offerings - Vera Drake, Topsy-Turvy, etc. - yet to me, Career Girls is one of the best, most human, films of his career.

Career Girls tells the story of a friendship - some might argue love - between two girls who met as room-mates, but whose relationship gradually turns into a deep and lasting friendship. Although how deep, Hannah and Annie only realise once they meet again after a 6-year break. To show the various stages in the development not just of their relationship but also in Hannah's and Annie's character and persona, Leigh uses a lot of flashback, like he had already done in his previous film. Although flashback may be a rather conventional device, Leigh uses it to great effect.

Career Girls starts in the present, when we see Annie travelling on a train in what appears to be the first class compartment. In the flashback that follows we become aware of the changes Annie has gone through, for not only does she now seem more confident and more settled than she did in the past, she also suffered from a skin disease which resulted in ugly scabs on her face. Apart from causing her to constantly lower her head, her skin disease occasionally also made her the brunt of Hannah's jokes. But if Annie was visually scarred, Hannah's scars are internal, having suffered under a domineering mother who always preferred her other daughter over her. Annie is met on the platform by Hannah. While it takes the two women a while to break the ice, to overcome the initial awkwardness, their relationship intensifies over the course of the weekend. Both have moved on from the struggling, penniless, students they were when they first met. Hannah is now a successful executive while Annie is working as a psychologist.

It is one of Leigh's trademarks to caricature the middle class, and surely Career Girls would have lent itself to do just that for this is precisely where both Hannah and Annie are eventually comfortably placed. However, while there are still some traces left of Leigh's contempt for the middle class - notably at the film's beginning - these are not so much expressed as caricature, but more so in observations of the conventionality both women, particularly Hannah, have succumbed to. That said, it is Hannah who has one of the best of the many witty lines in Career Girls. Looking down from the balcony of a posh apartment she and Annie are viewing, she says to the property owner, "I suppose on a clear day you can see the class struggle from here".

While Leigh has rightly gained a reputation for his clever scripts full of sharp observations and witty one-liners, the dialogues in Career Girls are without a doubt among the best of his career. And although Career Girls revolves around both Hannah and Annie, it is Hannah who is at the centre of the film. That Career Girls turned into the timeless gem it has become is due to a considerable degree to the outstanding talent of the late Katrin Cartlidge who plays Hannah. This is not meant to diminish the achievement of the other actors - far from it. But Cartlidge breathed life into a character - Hannah - that is as complex and negative as she is hilarious and ultimately likeable. In Hannah Cartlidge created one of Leigh's most remarkable, most memorable, characters and no doubt gave one of that year's best performances.

Career Girls is out on DVD.