' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Career Girls (1997)

Friday, December 04, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: Career Girls (1997)

Mike Leigh’s “Career Girls” is divided into two overlapping sections. In the present, old college friends Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) and Annie (Lynda Steadman) reconnect for a weekend in London, recalling events from their past when they were flatmates while attending Polytechnic of North London. Leigh delineates these jumps through color, seeing the past in chilly, often off-putting blues, like you want to just wrap your arms around yourself and wishfully think “everything will be ok”, while the present is seen in lighter beiges, evoked in Hannah’s airy flat. It’s almost Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” in reverse, seeing days gone by not through the prism of cozy nostalgia but cold self-reproach and seeing the here and now through a much more bright lens. Of course, where Gerwig is earnest, you can sense a smirk forming on Leigh’s lips as he almost imperceptibly brings past, present and future on a collision course. 

Leigh draws these contrasts between past and present further through the performances of Steadman and Cartlidge and, later, Mark Benton, who we will get to. In the flashbacks, we find the two fast friends as psychology majors, another touch of the ironical, given how emotionally unhinged they come across. As Annie, Steadman suggests something like an across-the-pond Molly Ringwald, eczema on her face and a hitch in her facial expression, like she can’t quite bring herself to look at people. As Hannah, on the other hand, Cartlidge provides an indelible sense of aggression, frequently adorned with sweat, like drinking pints at the pub is her aerobics, physically lashing out for emphasis as she talks, suggesting Amanda Plummer in “Pulp Fiction” if she didn’t have a gun, just an index finger. If the performances can sometimes feel over the top, that’s deliberate, These people pointedly feel like the furthest thing from the women we encounter in the present, though Leigh’s title is best said with a smirk, since the older, ostensibly wiser versions of Annie and Hannah talk little professional shop, the frequent flashbacks evincing how they still have not squared with everything they went through.

The closest “Career Girls” comes to any kind of traditional action is Annie going along with her friend as she apartment hunts, which only underlines a sense of transition rather than stability, leading to a couple comic encounters with loutish males. That includes one who seems to live almost in his own universe, with Hannah wryly, hysterically noting from the scenic balcony that you can almost see the class war from here, and Adrian, who has a connection to both Hannah and Annie’s past. He has changed, as the baby photos in his wallet illustrate, but, at the same time, hasn’t really changed at all, as his smug air and perhaps deliberate inability to recognize them can attest. The circumstances of this encounter might be contrived, but his showing up nevertheless demonstrates how little people move from their innate setpoints, as Jesse Wallace once opined, explaining “nothing much that happens to us changes our disposition.” 

The other prominent boy from their past is Ricky (Benton), whose own foibles are tenfold compared to Hannah and Annie, and whose disposition is one that never changes, sadly, if not tragically. As played by Benton, his character is impossibly even more mannered than Annie and Hannah put together, seeming to talk with his eyes closed most of the time, using his hands to almost underline in the air the words he manages to emit. He is their unlikely friend, and then their unlikely roommate, and though he develops romantic feelings for Annie, those are only reciprocated on a platonic level. In returning to their old haunt near movie’s end, Hannah and Annie are stunned to find Ricky sitting on the curb, dressed in a suit that feels like an ironic assessment of him as a grown salary man. Their fateful meeting does not go well, triggering flashback to the last time they saw him in their youth, an encounter that goes awry too. And if “Career Girls” is sort of writing off Ricky in service of Hannah and Annie, using him to demonstrate how they have moved on when he hasn’t, the way in which Leigh shoots these two scenes, Hannah and Annie’s old mannerisms suddenly cropping back up as the cold, bright light of the two outdoor scenes merges, implicitly suggest how easy it is to find yourself innately drifting, drifting back toward your setpoints. 

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