When they first meet, the central two characters in Mike
Leigh's incisive "Career Girls" are all sharp edges and angles. College roommates in London, Annie and Hannah are jittery young women dressed in black leather and beset by twitches, erratic gestures and unpredictable gab. Both seem to be drugged or maybe just touched in the head. They promise to be unsettling companions for a 90-minute entertainment.
But bear with Leigh, one of cinema's skillful illuminators of character, particularly the character of outcasts and misfits. Early on, Annie and Hannah may seem beyond reach, beyond comprehension, but through an accretion of telling detail, Leigh masterfully pulls us into range.
For Leigh, creator of last year's piercing "Secrets and Lies," behavior is never extraneous but a pathway to the understanding of human psyche. He's not preoccupied by story but by portrayals that are fully plumbed, thanks to his penetrating gaze (and an empowering, collaborative relationship with his actors). Less expansive than the family drama of "Secrets and Lies," "Career Girls" focuses on the friendship between Hannah and Annie over time and separation. The film begins as Annie (Lynda Steadman) embarks on a train from Yorkshire for a rendezvous in London with Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge), whom she has not seen since they graduated from college six years earlier.
The film is told by intersplicing scenes from their weekend reunion with flashbacks to their college days. Leigh is a firm believer in the notion that who you were eventually leads to who you are. The years have rendered Annie and Hannah milder, but the shadows of their former selves are never hard to discern. One of the pleasures of "Career Girls" is watching how Steadman, a newcomer to feature films, and Cartlidge ("Breaking the Waves" and "Naked") are able to mature their characters while retaining their essential qualities.
They meet as teen-agers when Annie answers Hannah's ad seeking a college roommate. Both are eccentric, but not similarly so. Insecure and fragile, Annie is a psych major with a ghastly, oozing rash on her face that inflames under stress and a slumping body that conveys defensiveness.
For Annie, Hannah seems exactly the wrong fit. With windmill limbs, Hannah resembles a manic scarecrow, swatting herself on the forehead and issuing concussive, Groucho Marx insults with an aggressive thrust of her chin. One glimpse of Annie's skin condition, and Hannah observes, "You look like you just did a tango with a cheese grater," a crack that nearly knocks its target off her feet.
But there is no formula for friendship, and somehow these fractured souls complement each other in precisely the right ways. Each is alert to the other's strengths and deficiencies, and they develop the instinctive knack of nurturing and affirming one another. As Hannah observes, "Together, we might make the perfect woman."
When they meet again, they are awkward with one another, feeling their way back to their former relationship. They are different now, more confident than before, but somehow still less than whole. Annie's skin condition has cleared up. Hannah's apartment is no longer decorated with a poster of Travis Bickle. It is ordered now and sterile.
Despite the outward changes, as the women talk and eat and journey around London, they re-learn that they fit with each other the way no one else ever has. Leigh doesn't make the point in dramatic fashion but through their relaxed interaction.
During the weekend, they encounter several people from their joint past, including an unctuous real estate agent. As a college student, he simultaneously broke both their hearts. Craven then, they see that he doesn't even remember them now.
They also run into a former roommate named Ricky (Mark Benton). Back then, he was a mangy, bearish figure with an array of tics to match theirs. "I'm an idiot savant without the savant," he would say, but he seemed little more oddball than his friends. Years later, it's clear that his odd mannerisms were the early markers of severe mental illness. He had taken a left, they a right.
The coincidences pile up in "Career Girls," but by then Leigh has involved us so fully in the emotional lives of his characters that the contrivances are easily dismissed. By the time Annie and Hannah wistfully part at the end of the film, it's not their peculiarities that linger in memory but their vulnerability and their earnestness. Leigh has not just brought them into focus; he has made us care.
Starring Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman
Directed by Mike Leigh
Released by October Films
Rated R (language, nudity)
Sun score *** 1/2
Pub Date: 8/29/97