February 4, 2006
One of the hallmarks of Mike Leigh’s cinema is that he has always been an astute observer of human behaviour and relationships that borders on cinema verite. He’s a fantastic observer of life, the way people talk, act and interact with one another and this is demonstrated so well in Career Girls (1997), an absorbing look at the relationship between two women over several years.
Annie (Steadman) and Hannah (Cartlidge) were best friends during their college years but drifted apart after graduation. Six years later, they are reunited and all the old memories come flooding back for both women as they cross paths with some of the people they knew during that time. In college, Annie was an awkward, shy twentysomething and Hannah was a gregarious joker and free spirit. They’re both very smart and click instantly when meeting for the first time.
Leigh cuts back and forth from the present to the past and back again, juxtaposing these two women’s lives from two different time periods and how much they’ve changed. He adopts a non-linear narrative by injecting these flashbacks, like how they met, that puts their present conversations into the proper context. By going back and forth, Leigh shows the importance of their current conversation by showing bits of their past.
The two leads are perfectly cast. Lynda Steadman plays the younger incarnation of her character as someone who is very self-conscious because of her skin condition. She is drawn to Hannah because she is someone who doesn’t mince words. Hannah likes Annie for who she is and Katrin Cartlidge turns in another amazing performance in a career cut tragically short. She plays Hannah as a very dynamic, charismatic character but never slips into caricature. In some respects, Hannah is a variation of Johnny from Naked (1993). Both characters are smart, restless souls armed with scathing wit that they often use to cut others down to size.
One of the questions this film raises is how much have these two women grown and learned from their experiences? Have they really changed much over the years? The men from their past that they meet in the present act as signifiers and show that these women have changed while the men are the same as they were six years ago. For these men their outer appearance may be different but they are the same inside. The women have matured while the men have not.
Career Girls avoids the usual cliches and melodramas that many films often resort to when examining the relationship between women. Leigh lets the characters tell their own story: he doesn’t resort to obvious music to manipulate our emotions or overtly stylish camerawork or editing. He deals with Annie and Hannah’s friendship honestly and an authenticity that makes you wonder how he is able to write such strong and realistic female characters. This film could have so easily devolved into a sappy Lifetime for Women movie but Leigh keeps everything grounded with effortless ease so that it feels like we have been given access to the lives of real women and not a fictionalized tale.
The bare bones DVD mirrors the minimalist approach to the movie – a theatrical trailer only.