"Career Girls" isn't going to cause the fuss that "Secrets & Lies" did, but that's not the point. How often, after all, does a psychologically acute British independent film win the Palme d'Or at Cannes, get nominated for five Oscars and gross $40 million theatrically worldwide?
But as a smaller-scale work, this look at the weekend reunion of two former college roommates puts into even sharper relief what makes writer-director Mike Leigh unique among his contemporaries. It underlines the qualities his more than a dozen films share that makes each linger in the memory, as this one does, long after the efforts of other filmmakers have faded to black.
What Leigh's celebrated work method--the growing of characters from the ground up in close collaboration with actors--creates is an inescapable and compelling sense of reality. No one captures tough human moments better than he does, and no one else's people are so persuasive that it's difficult to get them out of your mind. That's true even when, as here, the people have pain-in-the-neck aspects that keep each other and us at arm's length for a while. "Career Girls" has rewards, but they must be waited for.
Annie (Lynn Steadman, in her film debut) hasn't seen her old roommate Hannah ("Naked's" Katrin Cartlidge) for six years, but she's taking the train into London to spend a weekend with her. Before she arrives, Annie flashes back to what their college days were like, and the film alternates between showing how things were then and experiencing what they're like now as it examines the strength of shared memory and the place of the past in current lives.
Given how much more pulled together and successful both women are now, it's a shock to see what they were like as students at North London Poly. They called themselves "the Bronte sisters" because "we always get the brunt of everything," and consulted a dog-eared copy of "Wuthering Heights" for advice like it was the I Ching, "except you don't have to scratch it."
That questionable pun would be from Hannah, who was all hard edges at school, tactless and aggressive, capable of saying to Annie, a twitchy, grimacing neurotic with a terrible facial rash, "you look like you've done the tango with a cheese grater," a statement that couldn't help but lead to tears.
When Annie and Hannah's pal Ricky (Mark Benton), an overweight basket case whose pants are always just about falling off, is added to the mix, the result is a dubious menagerie that is close to out-and-out grotesqueness. While this emphasizes the awkward side of that time of life and provides a contrast to how the women are now, the feeling that the actors are overdoing it is hard to avoid.
As successful young professionals, Annie and Hannah are much more involving and easier to experience, even if they are awkward with each other at first. There is a kind of wariness and uncertainty between them as they attempt to reestablish a relationship that apparently fell apart under not the happiest of circumstances.
The women end up passing their time in make-believe apartment hunting in some of London's most posh areas, a quest that leads to the film's best line, a retort from Hannah who takes in the view from a dizzying high-rise balcony and snaps: "I suppose on a clear day you can see the class struggle from here."
The people encountered on the apartment search, including an obnoxious, conspicuous consumer (Andy Serkis) and a rental agent with a link to the women's past (Joe Tucker), each gets a segment of the film. Dealing with these men forges a new bond between the old friends and draws them closer to each other, perhaps closer, finally, than they've ever been before.
Though its plot frequently falls back on coincidence, so much so that the characters joke about it, "Career Girls" has the almost magical ability to involve us emotionally with these women even though there are points when we would've sworn that wouldn't be possible.
Secrets get revealed as well as lies, moments of real sadness and sharp humor are experienced, and everyone gets a better understanding of why (aside from a mutual admiration for the Cure, six of whose songs are on the soundtrack) the friendship came into being and why it's likely to last. Against considerable odds, a bond of genuine intimacy is forged on screen, and movies that can accomplish that have come to be Mike Leigh's trademark.
* MPAA rating: R, for language and some sexuality. Times guidelines: collegiate profanity.
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Katrin Cartlidge: Hannah
Lynda Steadman: Annie
Kate Byers: Claire
Mark Benton: Ricky
Andy Serkis: Mr. Evans
Joe Tucker: Adrian
A Thin Man production, in association with the Matrix Film and Television Partnership for Channel 4, released by October Films. Director Mike Leigh. Producer Simon Channing-Williams. Screenplay Mike Leigh. Cinematographer Dick Pope. Editor Robin Sales. Music Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Tony Remy. Production design Eve Stewart. Art director Helen Scott. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
* In selected theaters.