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The Way They Were

Career Girls
Joss Barratt

Ruminating Roommates: Lynda Steadman (left) and Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) share a flat in Mike Leigh's nostalgic new film, 'Career Girls.'

Mike Leigh looks back --but not in anger--at the old England

By Richard von Busack

THE NEW film from Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies) arrives right after the Labor victory in England. Though made before the election, Career Girls must have picked up some of the zeitgeist; it's a less angry film than usual. Seeing Leigh on the Oscars broadcast wearing a tux made me wonder if success was going to interfere with his vision of the dispossessed in England. The answer is that Leigh is going to go nostalgic.

Career Girls is a bifurcated movie that looks both backward and toward the present. Just as it takes a certain amount of force to be a socialist in a tuxedo, it takes a lot of directorial force to make the two halves match. They don't, and Career Girls is lesser Leigh.

The film concerns a pair of friends who remeet for a weekend after they separated six years before. Lynda Steadman's meek Annie has been working a dull job somewhere in the north of England. Brittle Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) has a more lucrative post at a stationery company. The new prosperity in Leigh's work is exemplified by Hannah's quip, as she takes in the view from a towering condominium, "I suppose on a clear day, you can almost see the class struggle from here."


Richard von Busack interviews the two stars of Career Girls, Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steaadman


The two ordinary women are also seen as they were in the past: as scrawny, scabby students. The actors are stylized and jittery in these flashbacks, which are frequently funny--particularly the scene in which Annie first shows up at the flat where she'll live with Hannah. Cartlidge is, then, not Hannah but Han-naw, with an accent grave. The same bray has transformed her housemate Clarie's name into "Claw."

Han-naw and Claw (Kate Byers) welcome their twitching new housemate into their slum, while giving her a hard time about her nervous facial eczema ("Looks like you've been tangoing with a cheese grater"). Hannah and Annie become uneasy friends for life; in flashback we see what brought them together and drew them apart.

Cartlidge is the salient feature of the film: an angry-eyed, fierce actor, the kind of natural macha Demi Moore has spent so many millions trying to become. And Cartlidge is an indelible verbal comic, murmuring an insult or meeting someone else's slur with a smashing rebound.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't have enough of Cartlidge's ice. A series of coincidences, each more improbable than the one before, softens the plot. The last and worst coincidence is a tear-jerking ending, in which the two women encounter by chance an old school chum (Mark Benton) fallen on hard times.

The sarcastic dialogue and Cartlidge's viperish delivery are often hugely funny, and they may be enough to recommend the film. Leigh and Cartlidge fans are, at any rate, going to want to see everything the pair makes. Still, Career Girls has a first half full of wit and an ending full of weeping, and the split between past and present is too much for the slight structure to bear. Just this once, it might have been better if Leigh had been viewing the class struggle from a distance.

Career Girls (R; 87 min.), directed and written by Mike Leigh; photographed by Dick Pope and starring Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman.

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From the August 14-20, 1997 issue of Metro.

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