Leigh's "Girls"

Pictured: Katrin Cartlidge, Lynda Steadman, and Kate Byers in Mike Leigh’s Career Girls (1997).  It’s a film that’s mostly been forgotten, sandwiched as it is in Leigh’s filmography between the higher-profile successes Secrets and Lies (1996) and Topsy-Turvy (1999).  That’s a shame, really; Career Girls may be second-rate Leigh, but it’s by no means a bad film.  In its incisive portrayal of female friendship, it looks ahead to such later films as Happy-Go-Lucky and Another Year.  Cartlidge and Steadman play a pair of spazzers who share a flat together during their university days in the ’80s (Steadman is a psychology student with dermatitis and a shock of red hair; Cartlidge reads English and looks to her dog-eared copy of Wuthering Heights for answers to life’s questions).  A decade or so later, now professionals in their thirties, they share a bittersweet weekend reunion.  The film’s bifurcated structure cuts back and forth between past and present, revealing continuities and discontinuities in the women’s lives.  Leigh’s ironic Marxism informs his scenes of a modern-day London riven by class inequalities.  An old university flame who mooched off—and two-timed—both women is revealed to have become a pretentious yuppie realtor; meanwhile, the women re-encounter another old boyfriend on a street corner, homeless and babbling.  Not even Cartlidge and Steadman have made it out clean.  While they retain traces of their university selves, they’ve settled into bourgeois office jobs and have traded in their punk-rock wardrobes and haircuts for sensible work-wear.  Such is the nature of capitalism, Leigh seems to say: no matter how radical we may be in college, we all become career girls in the end.    

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