Career Girls Review

With Secrets & Lies, Mike Leigh stretched his characteristic subject matter and techniques to their utmost. In Topsy-Turvy, the story of Gilbert & Sullivan and the making of The Mikado, he struck out in a new direction. Career Girls is the film he made in between: a deliberately small-scale and minor-key work. Gone are the ensemble casts and 130-minute-plus running times of those films and Naked: Career Girls is basically a two-hander – the total credited cast only numbers eight – and comes in under an hour and a half.

Annie (Lynda Steadman) and Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) used to share a flat above a Chinese takeaway while at college. Six years later, Annie comes down from Yorkshire to stay with Hannah in London for the weekend. They talk, visit a rich yuppie's Docklands flat (prompting the film's best line, from Hannah: "On a clear day you can see the class struggle from here") and bump into faces from the past. In flashback, we see the way they were. Annie was painfully shy and with a skin condition making her look, in Hannah's words, as if she'd "done the tango with a cheese grater". Hannah was all tics and spiky attitude hiding a deeper vulnerability.

Even by Leigh standards, this film is character-led and what plot there is rests heavily on coincidence. But what it has, like all Leigh's best work, is humour, compassion and considerable insight into character. If at first it looks as if Leigh has lapsed into mannered caricature, stick with it: the two lead actresses are wholly believable as both their characters' older and younger selves, and also convince us that one could have led to the other. As ever, Leigh's direction is self-effacing. Dick Pope's photography is sharp and naturalistic, distinguishing the film's two timelines by giving the flashbacks a bluish tone.

Career Girls is transferred anamorphically in a ratio of 1.85:1. The picture is sharp and colourful, with only minor artefacts such as "shimmering" brickwork.

The soundtrack is Dolby Surround and favours centre-channel dialogue, the surround channel only coming in to play with music (co-written by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who played a lead role in Secrets & Lies) and ambient sounds. Regrettably there are no subtitles. The only extra is the trailer (full-screen) and there are an adequate fourteen chapter stops. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 only.

Career Girls is probably not the best place for newcomers to Leigh's work to start. For all its pleasures it's a minor work, Leigh marking time between two more substantial efforts. However, established fans will snap it up, and at a RRP of £9.99 it has to be a bargain.

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