Director: Mike Leigh
Screenplay: Mike Leigh
I’m no Mike Leigh aficionado, but from what I understand this 1997 dramedy ranks as one of the British director’s “lighter” pictures. As accurate as that judgment may be–especially when you compare the film to its immediate predecessor in the Leigh canon, Secrets & Lies (1996)–there’s no denying Career Girls’ breezy pacing and oddball humour are cut with a palpable melancholy and some pretty weighty themes (not unlike Leigh’s most recent film Happy-Go-Lucky ).
Career Girls follows two former college roommates and best friends, Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) and Annie (Lynda Steadman), as they reunite for two days in London after six years apart. Juxtaposing this rather polite reunion between two seemingly well-adjusted women are flashbacks to the girls’ messier college days, a time when the pair first bonded over The Cure, Wuthering Heights, and their own unique cases of borderline-pathological flakiness: Annie jittery and painfully shy, suffering from itchy facial dermatitis; Hannah motor-mouthed, bouncy and gesticulative. We gradually learn that, despite the dramatic change in their appearances, the girls in their thirties still hang on to many of the aspirations, disappointments, and neuroses of their college days; these include memories of ill-fated romantic connections with two young men (Joe Tucker and an unforgettable Mark Benton), whom they will meet again under wildly coincidental–and in one instance, deeply painful–circumstances during the course of their two-day reunion.
Leigh does a rather amazing job creating symmetry between the flashbacks and the present day sequences; at times, we find we’re watching the younger Annie and Hannah grow into maturity, just as their older selves regain some of their early college silliness. But more impressive is how Leigh and his actors (who, as is typical of all Leigh films, worked together in fleshing out the script during preproduction workshops) bring the emotional content of the material into relief during the film’s final scenes, where past and present are synchronized in the characters’ lingering pain, uncertainty, and hope. All told, it is Leigh and company’s goofy, sad image of life as a constant reach for happiness–a happiness impossible without togetherness–that draws a heavy sigh to one’s heart as the film closes.