Directed by Mike Leigh
Film 4 Region 2
The last time I watched Mike Leigh’s Career Girls was on its initial cinema run back in 1997. I remember thinking it was a fine film but, for some reason, I never caught back up with it on any home video format up until now. I wanted to rewatch this again on DVD, not because I admire Mike Leigh so much (Naked is one of the great achievements of 20th Century cinema as far as I’m concerned) but because I wanted to see another performance by the late, great Katrin Cartlidge, who died tragically in her early forties due to complications from pneumonia (if memory serves).
Looking at Career Girls now, I was surprised to find myself casting a more critical eye on the production than I had when I initially viewed it in a cinema and, startlingly, it’s not necessarily a criticism of Leigh (although I’m sure it probably should be) but a criticism of how the general performances are handled by the actors involved. Before delving into that train of thought, however, I should probably point out that, whatever you think of the performances in this one, these are all absolutely gobsmacking actors and actresses who really know how to apply their craft. That being said, I think I had a problem with a certain part of their performances but, you know, that may be just my problem and not theirs. They should know what they’re trying to achieve, after all.
The film starts off with a girl called Annie (played by Lynda Steadman) returning to London to stay with her old University friend Hannah (played by Cartlidge) and the film examines their relationship by frequently flicking back to their university days and cross cutting these with how the girls are now. There are layers of emotional heartache and poignancy in spades in this movie, which are enhanced by the juxtaposition of the two time zones layered against each other and, well, I was moved by this but also think this is possibly one of Mike Leigh’s most devastatingly depressing and bleak movies... even though the girls are able to relate and articulate their attitudes and feelings now more than they ever could in the “old days”.
The problems for me mainly lay in the way all the characters are acting when they are students. They are maybe the oddest and most eccentric bunch of students I have ever seen in my life. Beyond quirky. My student days were never like this and, believe me, I knew some odd characters. It just seems to me that all the younger characters (with the exception of one who seems to have autistic traits) are all wired to the gills all the time and have more nervous ticks and twitches than you could possibly believe... especially when you see these characters as older versions of themselves and all these little characteristics are almost all gone. This is not subtle stuff and I’m currently living in a modern cinematic landscape where every action movie characterisation is a dumbed down, hyper exaggeration of what it could be in real life merely as a short cut... but I wouldn’t expect this kind of attitude in a Mike Leigh film. Maybe I’m just missing the intent here a bit but it seems like everyone has just drunk too much coffee in the student sequences.
The other problem I have is with the plausibility of the story itself and it’s something which Leigh (and the actors if I’m not much mistaken about the way a “script” is developed on a Mike Leigh film) has had to address by commenting on it a few times in the film itself... and each time it’s addressed it feels to me less and less plausible and more like the film is trying to justify itself. Some of the wonderful and, at times, quite harrowing dramatic moments of Career Girls come when, in the space of a day, the characters accidentally bump into various people they knew from “way back” who happen to be either living in London or just “down for the day” and coincidentally happen to be walking by the same bits of London where our two main protagonists are walking on their travels. Seriously, I know it’s good for the drama to have this happening but the level of plausibility drops every time it happens. If the timescale of the modern scenes had been a month or two then maybe, just maybe, I would have bought it... but a day or two is something much different and I just can’t, personally, suspend my disbelief to the degree that Leigh requires me to do so to not question why this is happening. And it doesn’t help mend matters by having the characters freak out about the chain of coincidences as meetings happen... it just beggars belief I’m afraid.
But, having said all that, I would have to say that for me, other than those two issues, Career Girls is another in an amazing series of films that Leigh has given the world. You will be both charmed and moved by all the characters in this movie... and you’ll possibly weep at and with them, just as I was doing the other day when I watched it again. This is a very strong film and will leave you thinking yourself how people’s lives and connections to each other are a kind of alchemistic magic that we should embrace more fully, or at least take time to stop and ponder in our everyday lives. We all have people who we really click with and this film is a dark celebration of that kind of camaraderie and understanding. If you haven’t seen this one then you really ought to add it to your “to watch” list. It’s a flawed but thoroughly entertaining piece of work from one of my countries leading creative geniuses. Give it a go.