Career Girls (1997) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Scoop's notes in white

There was a time when a very vital strain of British filmmaking provided the rest of the world with a look into the reality of the English class struggles. It seems that this school of social realism has all but disappeared from the international scene, and that films like A Taste of Honey, Billy Liar, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner are reminders of a time long ago when "relevance" seemed important. I don't know if the Brits make fewer of these films than they used to. Perhaps they are still a vital part of the scene in the U.K., but social realism doesn't make it across the pond very often.

And where is the other British staple: the sweeping and too-too-serious historical costume epics about the glory days of the Empire, from Merchant-Ivory and others? Not many of those to be seen lately in these parts? (Master and Commander was made with American money, and Australian director, and an Australian star.) Of course, all I know is what the American market dictates, but from my vantage point in the heartland city of Austin, it seems that every British export now falls into one of the following two categories:

1. Light, warm-hearted dramedies about eccentric outsiders who demonstrate that unconventional and unexpected behavior is just a reflection of the wonderful diversity of the human spirit. The eccentrics face cynical reactions from people with more traditional outlooks, but eventually the greater world opens its heart to the outsiders. Factory guys strip to disco music. Boys do ballet. Indian girls play football. Old ladies do naked calendars. Gentle rurals grow marijuana. Fat chicks pick up Hugh Grant.

2. Black comedies about urban gangsters, ala Sexy Beast; Snatch; or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

Mike Leigh is one British director who still makes some of those old-style social realism films for discriminating audiences. Oh, I know you probably never heard of Mike if you live outside the U.K., and you probably wouldn't much care for his work if you're a typical mainstream film-goer in the 14-29 age bracket, but Leigh is a master at what he does. Although filmmaking can be a young man's game, and certain types of directors lose touch with their audiences and become totally unhip after they turn 50 or so, Mike has actually been doing his best work in his 50s and 60s, simply because his type of moviemaking does not require him to be in touch with young action-oriented audiences.

His is an amazing story, as filtered through American expectations and experiences. He started in theatrical films more than three decades ago, disappeared into TV for nearly two decades, and finally re-emerged in films at age 45. This kind of career path is not as odd in England as it sounds to American ears. British TV can be daring, provocative, and original, and can sometimes take a lot of non-commercial risks. Good directors in the UK do not consider TV work to be banishment from the big leagues, nor do they view a TV-oriented résumé to be the equivalent of The Scarlet Letter. Mike's two decades in British TV can't be compared to two decades on Laverne and Shirley.

At any rate, Mike seems to keep getting better at what he does. In fact, although he has been around since dirt was young (or at least adolescent), his highest rated film at IMDb is one currently in theaters as I write this.

  1. (8.04) - Vera Drake (2004)
  2. (7.80) - Secrets & Lies (1996)
  3. (7.50) - Naked (1993)
  4. (7.40) - Topsy-Turvy (1999)
  5. (7.29) - Life Is Sweet (1990)
  6. (7.14) - Bleak Moments (1971)
  7. (7.11) - High Hopes (1988)
  8. (7.01) - Career Girls (1997)

The particular film I'm supposed to be talking about, Career Girls, is a slice-of-life story, a weekend in the life of two college roommates who get back together again six years after graduation, after not having been in contact and having drifted far apart. It mixes the present time with flashbacks to their school days. Since it is from the social realism school, it reveals no dramatic plot twists nor shocking secrets nor pulse-pounding action. It is essentially a two character play in which old friends talk about the present and reflect upon the past.

As you can see from the list above, Career Girls is not considered to be one of Mike Leigh's better films, but that's no condemnation. The lowest score on his résumé, 7.01, is better than the best score for most directors. I'd say that Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli have Career Girls pegged correctly at three stars. It's not a four star film because it has too many weaknesses. It can be rambling, and the two actresses lack subtlety when they try to create the characters' younger selves in the flashbacks, but it is still an interesting and thoughtful look at the genuine friendship formed by two radically mismatched people, and the ways in which our lives can seem to change over the years, even if that change is more apparent than genuine. It observes real characters carefully and tells the truth about them and the situations they encounter. It is not the kind of film I would choose to watch, but I could admire what Mike was trying to do, and could see that he succeeded in large part. Special credit should be given to the lighting and photography in this film, which are among the best I have ever seen.

One of the two stars of the film is Katrin Cartlidge. You never heard of her? Well, you might call her the anti-Hurley, because she did just about everything possible in her short life to assure that her talent would never be seen. She chose her projects discriminately, shunned commercial ventures, and appeared in "small" award-winning films like Breaking the Waves and No Man's Land, as well as Mike Leigh's films. Although no beauty, she might have been. She was not an unattractive woman. She was tall and lanky with nice bone structure, and she might have been sculpted into what we call beautiful if she had done a little nip/tuck work, but that sort of superficial posturing wasn't for her. She kept her bad teeth and her noticeably large nose. She deliberately chose to play some unsympathetic and obnoxious characters. She spoke in her natural unrefined accent, and she didn't gad about London in the social whirl. She was genuine. She was always praised as an indefatigable worker.

And then she died.

Katrin came down with flu symptoms in September of 2002, and ignored them because ... well ... because it just seemed like a flu. It was pneumonia. By the time she got to a hospital, the complications of blood poisoning had gotten beyond the point where the doctors could save her. And just like that, a few days after she seemed young and fit, she was gone.

At age 41.

Further reading:




  • no features, but an exquisite transfer


Region 2 DVD info from Amazon UK


Katrin Cartlidge shows her breasts in a flashback sex scene.

Tuna's notes in yellow

Career Girls (1997) is a quirky UK film about two ex college roommates and best friends who reunite after having been apart for six years, and having chosen different career paths. The film alternates between their present day reunion, during which they keep running into people they knew in college; and flashbacks to their college years, when they shared a flat and more than one boyfriend.

I must admit I had to resort to subtitles to understand the accents some of the time, but otherwise the film had remarkable pace for being so light on plot, and many moments had me chuckling. This character-driven comedy works largely due to an award-winning performance from Katrin Cartlidge, as the outgoing one of the pair. (Linda Steadman is the quieter one.) If someone had asked me about the wisdom of making a film about two former classmates who have gotten pretty much nowhere in their lives, and spend the entire film talking and remembering, I would have been dubious. However, I found myself enjoying this Mike Leigh effort, and spending time with two likeable people.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus three stars. James Berardinelli 3/4, Roger Ebert 3/4.

The People Vote ...

  • It grossed a surprisingly high $2.5 million in an arthouse run in the USA.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. It is a top-notch film made for limited, discriminating audiences.

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