Mike Leigh is a consistently good director, and Career Girls is another example in his favor, though it is a weaker film than Secrets & Lies or Naked.
Grosse Pointe Blank, 1997, George Armitage, for another look at awkward reunions
Any other film by Mike Leigh: the ones I can recommend from experience are Naked, Life Is Sweet, and Secrets & Lies
The movie starts with Annie (Lynda Steadman) taking a train to London and hooking up with her old college roommate Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge). Their meeting is awkward, as if they aren’t really still friends, even though they feel they should be. Soon the movie flashes back (as it often will) to the time ten years ago when they first met. That meeting was just as awkward, only more painful and abrasive. This comparison is the first of many; Career Girls is split fairly evenly between two times in these characters’ lives.
After dinner and more reminiscing, Annie and Hannah warm up to each other and, as in most Leigh movies, we begin to see the depths of the characters. But it’s not just the two main characters who have depth and complexity. Characters from the past inevitably turn up in the present story, allowing both timelines to have added meaning. For example, we see the slick real estate broker named Spinx (Joe Tucker?) and immediately form an impression of a smooth, hard-shelled man. When the story shows him in the past, we see how great a change he’s undergone, and perhaps how he came to be so shellacked; why he’s hidden his old self from his modern self.
The movie follows a subdued path through the characters’ lives, and ends in a low-key, Mike Leigh way, with Annie getting on the train and going back home. Next time, we know she won’t be so hesitant to come visit.
In this film, it seems like Leigh is too comfortable with his own style. (For those who are new to Leigh, his directing style is to start with characters and actors and a broad outline of a plot. The actors learn their characters, then work out the details of the plot with Leigh.) The details are interesting, but at the expense of a believable big picture. Independently, each character has an interesting quirk. But that every character has a quirk makes the film feel contrived.
On top of that, the movie’s plot relies on several coincidences — usually a cinematic no-no. The characters comment on the coincidences, seemingly to mitigate the movie’s guilt. What actually happens is that they draw attention to the unlikeliness of the plot, aggravating, rather than mitigating, the problem.
Still, Career Girls is a Mike Leigh film, which always means you can count on great performances and interesting characters. Cartlidge was great as Dodo the nurse in Breaking the Waves, and she is very good in this role, too. Also, Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope did a good job on separating the look and feel of the modern and historical stories. In addition, they achieved some beautifully rich texture and lighting that reminded me of the wonderfully moody cinematography in Lost Highway.
Career Girls is a relatively weak effort from Mike Leigh. But it shows that even a bad Leigh film is better than most of what Hollywood has to offer.