Career Girls (1997)

reviewed by
James Berardinelli

A Film Review by James Berardinelli
RATING (0 TO 10): 7.5
Alternative Scale: *** out of ****

United Kingdom, 1997 U.S. Release Date: 8/13/97 (limited) Running Length: 1:28 MPAA Classification: R (Profanity, sexual situations, brief nudity) Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1

Cast: Katrin Cartlidge, Lynda Steadman, Kate Byers, Mark Benton, 
      Joe Tucker
Director: Mike Leigh
Producer: Simon Channing-Williams 
Screenplay: Mike Leigh
Cinematography: Dick Pope
Music: Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Tony Remy
U.S. Distributor: October Films

Mike Leigh's follow-up to his Oscar nominated SECRETS AND LIES is a different kettle of fish altogether. CAREER GIRLS is a light, almost comedic drama that harkens back, in tone and temperament, to LIFE IS SWEET. There's nothing bold or ground-breaking about this film -- it's a two-character piece that features strong writing and acting, and very little else. CAREER GIRLS is also short enough (a skinny ninety minutes) that it's never in danger of wearing out its welcome, something that occasionally happens with "talky" movies like this.

In many ways, simplicity is CAREER GIRLS' greatest asset. Because the plot is so threadbare, it allows us to delve more deeply into the personalities of the two protagonists. They are Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) and Annie (Lynda Steadman), a pair of thirty-ish former university roommates-turned-business women who are spending a weekend together in London. Once, Hannah and Annie were inseparable, but, since completing their terms at college six years ago, they have become victims of the gulf that time and distance often build. CAREER GIRLS is about their attempts to rediscover, and perhaps redefine, their relationship.

As usual, Mike Leigh uses the "fly on the wall" perspective to give us insights into the most mundane aspects of the women's weekend. We see them eating, drinking, and getting ready for bed. Their topics of conversation are often banal, but the intelligence of the writing keeps us involved even when the subject matter is stale. And, to give us a sense of perspective about Hannah and Annie's past, Leigh employs numerous flashbacks to allow us to share their memories. It's a technique that amplifies our understanding of the two characters.

The reunion is presented believably, with the initial awkwardness and tension giving way to the gradual recapturing of an easy familiarity. Anyone who has met an old friend after many years' absence will find the ring of truth here. In this, as in almost everything else, Leigh shows that he's a careful observer of life. Time mutates all of us, although, living within the shell of our body, we're unaware of the changes, or think that they're imperceptible. Reunions give us a chance to take a step back and examine how the years have altered our lives and those of others. This is the feeling that Leigh has captured here, by introducing not only Hannah and Annie, but three other important individuals from their past: the "idiot savant" Ricky (Mark Benton), the callous Adrian (Joe Tucker), and another former roommate, Claire (Kate Byers). Coincidence also plays a role in CAREER GIRLS, although Leigh seems a little self-conscious using this device, since he keeps mentioning it.

CAREER GIRLS is peppered with humor, although, as was the case in LIFE IS SWEET, some of the comedy is underpinned by a bittersweet aura. The most memorable of this film's episodes has Hannah and Annie, who are looking at expensive condos without any intention of buying ("just to see how the other half lives"), encountering a sleazy owner who seems as interested in getting them into bed as in showing off his high-rise domicile.

The film's success depends largely on how well the two main characters are presented, and the performances of Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman are rock solid. Steadman, in her first feature film, captures the innocence and insecurity of a woman suffering from a severe self-esteem problem. We see her as a painfully shy college girl with all sorts of nervous tics and a face scarred by dermatitis, then as a somewhat more relaxed and mature woman. Katrin Cartlidge, who appeared in Leigh's NAKED (and more recently in BREAKING THE WAVES), is even better as the self-confident, but inevitably lonely, Hannah. Cartlidge delivers Leigh's dialogue with a relish that gives many of the one- liners their zing.

CAREER GIRLS is a wonderful diversion -- expert film making that's all the more effective because it seems so natural and effortless. The movie lacks the grit of NAKED and the emotional impact of SECRETS AND LIES, but, because it effectively transforms two strangers into people worth caring about, CAREER GIRLS can be regarded as nothing less than a success.

Copyright 1997 James Berardinelli

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"A film is a petrified fountain of thought."
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