By Stephanie Zacharek
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Out of the plain strivings of the British working and middle classes, Mike Leigh always manages to make art, even if his movies never announce themselves as such. His latest, Career Girls, is a more modest thing than last year's superb Secrets & Lies, but he once more finds the pulse of life. In this story of two former college roommates who spend a reunion weekend in London after six years apart, we rediscover Leigh's hallmarks--the tension between the confusions of youth and the ambiguities of adulthood, and the ways people survive amid diminished expectations.
The protagonists here are Annie (Lynda Steadman), an uncertain bundle of nerves who, as an undergraduate, used to break out in nervous rashes, and Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge), an overbearing talker and amateur social critic whose savage wit conceals an unmoored soul. They make for an odd (and oddly complementary) couple, and through flashbacks, Leigh gives us the chance to observe them in two crucial periods--as young roomies holed up in a scruffy flat over a Chinese takeout and as thirty-year-olds whose wardrobes have improved a bit but whose "careers" still feature more disturbance than comfort or contentment.
As in Naked and the ironically titled Life Is Sweet, Leigh has chosen a nearly perfect cast. Cartlidge's noisy, impatient energy is just the right foil for Steadman's awkwardness, and both actresses admirably bridge the gap between their former selves and their current ones. Not surprisingly, Hannah gets the sharpest lines. Looking over a stark white penthouse that's been put up for sale by a shabby, pathetic playboy, she gazes out over the Thames and cracks: "I suppose on a clear day you can see the class struggle from here."
It's not just a line of dialogue. Leigh doesn't belabor the point, but social class is one of the things that keep Hannah and Annie from breaking out. Another is gender. The third is Leigh's old standby: a certain failure of will born of deep-seated insecurities. All his characters have that; all of them are vivid for it.
In the course of the weekend, recollections of the old days--from Emily Brontë to psychology class--come flooding back, sometimes provoked by happenstance. Strangely, the women run across a callous old boyfriend (Joe Tucker) they shared for a time, and just when you think they might start feeling sorry for themselves and their lot, they meet again their old friend Ricky (Mark Benton), a big bear of a bloke whose former quirkiness has degenerated into schizophrenia. Life may not be sweet for Annie and Hannah, but things could be a lot worse.
Memories of an old friendship and its tentative renewal may be rather frail stuff from which to fashion a 91-minute film. But Leigh's dramatic touch is so deft and his grasp of the absurdities in everyday life remains so sure that even when he seems to be running in second gear (it often seems that way here), he puts most other moviemakers to shame. When it comes to the daily grind, he never misses a heartbeat.
Written and directed by Mike Leigh. With Katrin Cartlidge, Lynda Steadman, Mark Benton and Joe Tucker.
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