A little-seen and rarely discussed minor work from Mike Leigh, Career Girls had unfortunate timing in that it was released barely twelve months after Secrets & Lies. That film launched Leigh into the international pantheon of great filmmakers while Career Girlswent mostly unnoticed. It’s a shame because the film is very good.
Undeniably mounted on a smaller canvas, both thematically and aesthetically, Career Girls is essentially a two hander between two women as they meet up years after being University room mates. Leigh moves back and forth in time to show the two women now and in their earlier days together. It’s a study in how faces, personalities, circumstances and lives can change in very little time. It’s quite refreshing to see Leigh work with such minute materials and the film is only as broad as it needs to be. As with all his work it is wrought with moments of dark comedy, tragic reality and anchored by terrific performances. Both Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman are excellent in past and present incarnations of their characters and their little daylight forays and reminisces are beautifully played. It’s very light on its feet, almost a sunnier sister film to the apocalyptic Naked.
Mike Leigh himself is very fond of Career Girls and he’s never quite made a film like it since (does he ever repeat himself?) There’s a sense that it as much a film that belongs to the actresses as it does the director. It comes from a very feminine place and has a sisterly, motherly care running throughout. Maybe its low stakes and minor conflicts were cancelled out by Secrets & Lies‘ grand sweep, but it is a film that deserves attention in its own right. As far as B-sides go, you could do much worse than this. Any budding Leigh fans out there might leave this one until last, but they’ll be happy to find it a pleasant surprise.