2 Roomies Reunite To Rehash The Past ``career Girls'' Is A Slighter But Still Worthy Effort From The Maker Of ``secrets & Lies.''

Posted: August 13, 1997

What's with Mike Leigh and his thing for women with bird-squeak voices: jittery chirps that verge on parody? Close your eyes and you can almost hear those Monty Python guys ululating in their housedresses.

It took some getting used to Brenda Blethyn's Cockney caterwaul in Leigh's Secrets & Lies before the pain and isolation of her character superseded that curious timbre. And likewise with Annie (Lynda Steadman), the first face we see in Leigh's modest Secrets & Lies follow-up, the wistful, minor-key Career Girls. Riding a train to London to reunite with her college roommate, whom she hasn't seen in six years, Annie flashes back to the old days, and we see a wreck with punky hair, a piercing voice, painfully shy, nodding awkwardly.

Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge), Annie's flatmate, has her own arsenal of neurotic tics. In the episodes where the two - and, for a time, a third girl - shared a walk-up above a Chinese takeout, Cartlidge's high-strung Hannah blurts out jokey asides, chops the air like some palsied kung fu fighter. They're the fidget twins, this duo.

And, in Career Girls, they are dear friends who shared confidences, consoled each other through late nights, spatted over the kitchen sink and discovered a wonderful thing to do with Wuthering Heights: ask a question about your future, crack open the book and point to a line on a random page. The answer is there, in that word, that phrase. It's Emily Bronte's I Ching.

Now, dressed as the 30-year-old professionals they've become, Annie and Hannah meet again for a weekend. ``It looks the same but it feels different,'' Annie says, scanning the city from inside Hannah's car. And it is different - the women have changed, grown up.

With the uncanny detail and sense of the real that have become the hallmark of Leigh's pictures, the filmmaker and his two stars take us through these 48 hours of reflection and reminiscences. The flashbacks are intercut throughout, providing resonance - and sometimes simply making sense of the conversation happening in the here and now. Both actresses are strikingly good, and the quirky kinship they convey is palpable.

At times sweetly funny and crushingly sad, Career Girls tracks Annie and Hannah as they eat, visit old haunts, embark on a playful mock quest for a new apartment. (In one opulent high-rise inhabited by a leering, bathrobed bachelor, Hannah takes one look at the endless panorama and cracks, ``I suppose on a clear day you could see the class struggle from here.'') And in a series of odd coincidences, they cross paths with friends from their university days. When Annie and Hannah happen on Ricky (Mark Benton), a withdrawn, overweight psych major, it's as though he'd been abandoned in time. It's a melancholy reunion, to say the least.

Career Girls doesn't have the sweep of Secrets & Lies, nor the venom of Naked (which also featured the riveting Cartlidge). But in the small world it keenly describes, the film packs an emotional punch - silly voices and all.

CAREER GIRLS * * * 1/2

Produced by Simon Channing-Williams, written and directed by Mike Leigh, photography by Dick Pope, music by Marianna Jean-Baptiste and Tony Remy, distributed by October Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 27 mins.

Hannah - Katrin Cartlidge

Annie - Lynda Steadman

Claire - Kate Byers

Ricky - Mark Benton

Mr. Evans - Andy Serkis

Parent's guide: R (adult themes, sexual situations, profanity)

Showing at: Ritz at the Bourse and Ritz Twelve/NJ

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