In the wake of his Palme d’Or-winning, Oscar-nominated “Secrets & Lies,” iconoclastic Brit filmmaker Mike Leigh has made one of his most modest pictures, although one that offers quite a few laughs and other quirky pleasures. A time-jumping tale of an enduring friendship between two insecure female schoolmates, “Career Girls” can’t help but be seen as something of a letdown after his career-topping previous pic, but its deliberate off-handedness and limited ambition ultimately prove disarming. Screened privately in the Cannes market, small-scaled effort began its initial commercial runs this week in New Zealand and, while its theatrical future looks just fair, its intimate focus and verbal bias should make for a fine tube and vid entry.
Film starts very flatly, as Annie (Lynda Steadman) arrives in London for a visit with her former flatmate, Hannah (Katrin Cart-lidge). Long early scene of the two chums catching up on the banal facts of their lives while sitting in the latter’s small apartment plays like mundane TV fare, what with the slightly forced chit-chat presented with no elan at all in dull intercutting style.
Initial flashbacks to their lives six years earlier aren’t terribly promising either. Hannah was an edgy, short-tempered, sharp-tongued rebel of sorts, bracingly smart in her good moments but not someone easy to be around at others. Annie, for good measure, was even more of a handful, a wallflower made infinitely vulnerable by a horrendous, nearly disfiguring facial skin rash.
Oddly for a Leigh film, the performances during these early-year sequences are extremely mannered, especially those of Steadman, whose bizarre twitching seems nearly spastic, and Mark Benton, who plays a fat, stuttering fellow student who has an intimate encounter of sorts with Annie and plays his part with his eyes closed most of the time.
Fortunately, however, the story eventually gets on track to become a tartly observed, occasionally quite funny look at a friendship in the process of renewing itself. Hannah, while still quite the misfit, has become an outwardly confident professional woman who dresses very sharply and has managed to develop her caustic wit into a genuinely acerbic philosophy of life. Annie, while not nearly so impressive, has nonetheless succeeded in cleaning up her act, and skin, although her prospects would appear rather limited.
Neither woman has a man in her life, and their encounters with a couple of blokes, however caricatured, provide the picture with its comic highlights. On some apartment-hunting rounds for Hannah, they are first confronted with a horny, champagne-swigging, weed-toking hustler (Andy Serkis) who can’t stop coming on to Hannah.
Peering out from his high-rise digs, Hannah dryly notes, “I suppose you can see the class struggle from here,” and the women manage to escape with their dignity intact, only to become undone at their next stop.
A substitute real estate agent looks vaguely familiar, and flashbacks to the old days reveal the good-looking fellow, Adrian (Joe Tucker), to have been an old flame of Hannah’s who mysteriously shifted his attentions to Annie. Reminder of this fleeting betrayal dredges up somewhat troubling memories for the women, and its doesn’t help that Adrian, despite some prodding, doesn’t remember them at all.
But these absurd encounters with men push the two friends to deeper emotional levels, and the moments in which Hannah evaluates her own sense of self are outstandingly revealing and pointed. For all her intelligence and undoubted professional ability, Hannah admits that Annie is the only person she feels has ever truly appreciated her, and one can see in her friend’s admiring eyes that this is true.
A final attempt to recapture the past by going back to the physical location of it yields predictably melancholy results, with pic ultimately having traveled a long way from its shaky opening to emerge as a vibrant two-character portrait with a strong mix of comedy and poignant drama.
Much of the credit for this potent mixture must go to Cartlidge, whose one-liners have the effect of a stiff drink but who also creates a well-rounded characterization of a woman whose bright, direct intelligence provides its own sort of limitation on her life. Steadman, especially in the early going, takes quite a bit of getting used to, and her role is considerably more recessive and bland, but her Annie finally is worth the extended attention given her.
Tech credits are plain. Print caught featured unneeded English subtitles, as well as odd “translation” of inaudible dialogue.