|ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
Leigh's new film is workin' 9 to 5
By John McEwan?
Rather surprisingly, Mike Leigh's latest film is not another grim satire. His earlier films, such as High Hopes and Naked, all starred working class characters whose aspirations were crushed under the jackboot of capitalism. While Career Girls is full of the brilliant sarcasm and humour which made his previous works so successful, the focus has shifted to working class characters who have climbed up the social ladder and have found middle class jobs. Career Girls is an almost gentle portrait of two women who survived university together.
Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) and Annie (Lynda Steadman) are students struggling with independence while constantly looking to the future. Fast forward six years. Hannah and Annie are now 30 years old. Annie, who has been living at home with her mother, comes back to London, England to visit Hannah. They spend a weekend talking about how things turned out, while trying to find Hannah a new apartment and running into old acquaintances at every turn. They have found the future and they don't know quite what to make of it.
Career Girls is two films rolled into one. Leigh gives both narratives equal weight and the story moves effortlessly back and forth between the two time lines. This is a extremely difficult trick to pull off and Leigh does it with considerable skill. The story never bogs down, even when the two stories seem to be heading in different directions.
In the late '80s, the world looked like an awfully bleak place. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher was butchering the social safety net. The gap between the rich and poor was widening. It seemed like things could only get worse. Hannah and Annie worry about the world, but they have more immediate problems, most of which involve men. Hannah is flamboyant and aggressive. Annie is painfully shy and has a strange skin disease. When a friend comments on their odd choice of maroon paint for their apartment, Hannah quips enthusiastically, "We're marooned!" Which about sums up how they feel.
In the present, Annie, the psychology student, has become a personnel manager. Hannah, the English student, now sells stationery. Much has changed, but a lot is still the same. They still have to fend off awful men, but neither of them has escaped from loneliness either.
Leigh has a very odd directing method which gives his films a unique style. He begins with actors rather than a script. The actors come up with their own characters and the dialogue is invented through improvisation. After a few weeks of work, Leigh sits down and writes a script which is then used to shoot the movie. The result is a film which seems spontaneous and improvised. Every character is totally original and zany.
Katrin Cartlidge, who last worked with Leigh in Naked, gives a spectacular performance as Hannah. She is a buzz of sarcastic remarks and frantic hand gestures. It is an 'over the top' performance which definitely works.
Apart from capturing character, Leigh's great strength is his ability to evoke place. Even with a sparing use of outdoor shots, Leigh manages to make the city come alive. Hannah and Annie travel through a city which has its own shifting moods, while remaining a living place full of people.
Career Girls is a charming film. While it has the same biting humour and the vibrant characters of Leigh's previous work, it doesn't pack the same punch. Career Girls is a story about survivors who have come out ahead. Hannah and Annie have not found the happiness they are looking for, but life has turned out better than they imagined it might be, back when they were students.
Career Girls is playing at the New Yorker until Nov. 16.