Though these modern working gals make quite an impression, Judge Bill Gibron believes there are better examples of Mike Leigh's cinematic sketching to be found on DVD.
All Hannah wanted was a roommate…instead she got a best friend.
Hannah and Annie have been best friends since college. They met when the shy, nervous Ann came looking to share a flat with the broad, boisterous Han. Each carried a huge personal burden with them at the time—Annie had a very obvious case of dermatitis on her face, while Hannah had a drunken slut of a mother driving her mad. Yet together, these two pals bonded and braved many of young adulthood's biggest roadblocks. They also made a few mistakes along the way. They helped and then emotionally abandoned a stuttering student named Ricky and shared the sexual favors of an amoral bastard named Adrian. Eventually, college ended and the girls went off to their separate lives. Annie got a personnel job in the North. Hannah stayed in London and landed an executive position at a paper firm. After six years without seeing each other, Ann returns to the big city to see her friend. It's time to catch up on old memories, bump into old acquaintances, and trace that path of how two pathetic university outsiders became the controlling, confident Career Girls they are today.
When one learns that Career Girls is a Mike Leigh film, all kinds of expectations are instantly formed. After all, this is the filmmaker who brought us the fabulous Secrets and Lies and Topsy-Turvy, and delivered the complex, confrontational Naked and Vera Drake. His unique approach to narrative—no formal script, just character outlines and potential scenes—offers a freshness and a spark that most movies can't match. His actors are always top-notch and their performances have a surreal combination of Method intensity and natural authenticity. Through these telling explorations of emotion and personality, revelations about the human condition and individual spirit are captured and resonate throughout the running time. Unfortunately, Career Girls could easily be classified as "Leigh-lite." As a matter of fact, one could assume that this film was the work of a Leigh wannabe. All the necessary elements are in place—quirky characters, strong performances, and interpersonal insights—but instead of coming together to create a kind of cosmic catharsis, the formless plot more or less strands our stars. We keep waiting for the major revelation to arrive, making whole this rambling, random selection of scenes. Sadly, it never arrives.
This does not mean that Career Girls is a bad film. Far from it. It does feel, however, like an incomplete film. Annie and Hannah never seem to expand beyond the obvious roles they establish in college (one is a twitch-filled mess, the other is a take-charge lout). If anything, age only makes them more obvious in their attitudes. When we first meet Annie, she's a jittery, jumbled wreck. By the end of the movie, her tics are almost gone, but her manic mess of a life lingers. Hannah has had to hide her rage inside a false bravado for so long that she's now not sure where maturity starts and her former front ends. Indeed, Leigh may be saying that we take into adulthood the masks we wear in our youth, but we never get a scene which clarifies this conceit. Instead, it's all flash-forwards and flashbacks, little vignettes strung together to create a nice pattern of possibilities, but with no real truth underneath. Since the men are more or less wicked window-dressing here (even our pal Gollum—Andy Serkis—shows up as a coke-addled apartment owner with his tact in his boxers), the girl's personal relationships never really matter. Because we can't get a real handle on why the ladies have been apart for so long, their reuniting is all surface and superficial.
The acting could have something to do with the film's lack of complete success. Though she's delicate and dainty most of the time, Lynda Steadman never gives her anxious Annie any other viable attributes. About all she does to differentiate between young and old is lift her head and make more eye contact with people. The whole dermatitis angle is odd, since it never pays off in any up front or subtextual way. Katrin Cartlidge's Hannah is much more solid, even if her turn is equally two minor variations on the same singular theme. The most potent part of her persona—the drunk, demanding mother—is often used as a crutch, a reason for being bitchy when a myriad of other issues could be playing about. Naturally, we never visit the wine-soaked witch.
In some ways, Career Girls is Leigh's most one-note narrative. Since our characters change so little over the years, the gals easily glide back into their roles as dominant (Hannah) and submissive (Annie). The modern material has little of the electricity of the college memories, yet both are equally formless. Perhaps the most saddening of all, Leigh goes for a cloying, three-handkerchief ending in which one of our past paramours ends up being an unhappy homeless mental case with delusional designs on a baby he swears he fathered. As our leads launch into their wide-eyed, weepy mode, we feel a minor pang in our heartstrings, but Leigh is looking for an all out tug. Unfortunately, we cannot accommodate. Career Girls hasn't given us the necessary guideline for such a schmaltzy response.
Still, for most of its running time, this movie is an enjoyable jaunt into the lives of two drastically diverse individuals. You can relish the performances (up to a point) and sympathize with the stated scenario. Leigh seems to be saying that individuals don't really change with age; it's time that makes the novel personality seem nominal. Annie was a literally wounded waif looking for any kind of meaningful companionship. Hannah would have preferred the sexual comfort of a macho man, someone who could protect her from the problems of the world. But in Annie's needy nuttiness, she has found her drunken Mum away from home. During the final moments, when Annie is returning to her place in the country, we wish Leigh would find a way to keep them together. He hints at lesbianism throughout (everyone assumes they are a couple) and it is painfully clear that both do better together. You would assume with all the talk about renting flats and changing lives that we would end up with more than just a weekend visit. However, such a commitment seems all that Career Girls is willing to make, and it more or less illustrates the film's flaws better than anything else. Most of the time, Mike Leigh makes movies that use minor observations to make major points. Here, the undersized moments stay small.
Aside from a flip-disc presentation of both a 1.33:1 full-screen version and a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of the title, Fox does nothing else to sell this film. The image is excellent in either version, a detail rich and color correct offering that correctly recreates the movies many mood changes. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Stereo Surround 2.0 is perfect for the film's dialogue driven dimensions. The conversations are always clear and the Cure-heavy underscoring is moody and atmospheric. Still, this movie mandates some contextual material. Even an interview with Leigh would have helped us understand his motives here. Better yet, a tribute to Cartlidge (who died in 2002 of complications from pneumonia and septicaemia) would have been nice, if only to celebrate an artistic life cut drastically short.
Perhaps because of the cinematic greatness that surrounds it, Career Girls will always suffer by comparison. Yet maybe such an evaluation is warranted. We come into a Mike Leigh film to witness life redrawn as a series of sensational aesthetic experiments. This is one case, however, where the resulting brew was not as intoxicating or enlightening as others. You won't get drunk off Career Girls, but you probably can handle the flavor this flat, unformed elixir gives off.
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