For a good while at the beginning of Mike Leigh's Career Girls when you first see, in bits of flashback, two awkward young women meeting as university-student roommates in a ratty London flat you might reasonably assume these bedraggled birds are on drugs, or afflicted with mental problems, or both. Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge), manic and harsh, witty and bullying, can't stop herself from spewing wounding comments in a logorrheic monologue. (She could be on speed, or coke.) Annie (Lynda Steadman), nearly crippled with insecurity and nervousness, is also cursed with a crusty map of eczema on her face and neck. (Per Hannah: ''Looks like you've done the tango with a cheese grater.'') Unable to look anyone in the eye, Annie droops her head, twitches, and rolls her eyes. (She's got the look of heroin.)
In other words, the two are ideal stars of a Mike Leigh movie. The British writer-director is a strong-willed connoisseur of the grubby (David Thewlis in Naked), the misfit (High Hopes), and the economically battered (Life Is Sweet). Indeed, the accessible, satisfyingly emotional Secrets & Lies was almost the exception in Leigh's bleak, twisty universe of the hard to love. Career Girls is more like the rule: It isn't easy to get close to these two women. But the effort yields a rewarding take on the resiliency and therapeutic importance of friendship.
The flashbacks to Hannah's and Annie's raw younger days in the mid-1980s their shared miseries and pleasures, their fumbles with boys occur during an overnight trip Annie, the out-of-towner, makes to London to see Hannah, after a gap of six years. Those half-dozen years have smoothed the former schoolmates' roughest edges (a maturation echoed in the change to a smoother, more flowing shooting style from cinematographer Dick Pope). Annie's face is clear, and she can look at others without shrinking. Hannah has learned to control her abrasive tongue. The two single working women their unspecified professions hardly matter are shy with each other at first but reconnect quickly enough. Rattling around on adventures, they coincidentally cross paths with significant figures from their shared past (including, most poignantly, a large, sensitive, sadly damaged fellow, played with a terrifying display of tics by British TV and theater actor Mark Benton). Then Annie returns home. In the end, Leigh seems to suggest, the friends are as close as lovers, more secure in their companionship than they are with anyone else in their solo lives.
Because his dramas are so famously actor intensive, a Mike Leigh production is only as compelling as his players. In Cartlidge, who previously costarred in Leigh's Naked and played sister-in-law to Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, the director collaborates with an actress of almost intimidating intensity; there's so much coming out of Cartlidge in her tour de force performance especially in the flashback scenes that it's sometimes difficult to see the whole character, and only after Hannah mellows does she come into clear(er) view. But Cartlidge's ferocity is effectively framed by the quieter work of Steadman, another British TV and stage regular, making her film debut. Steadman lets the terrified, yearning younger Annie show through the composure of the older. And in doing so, she becomes, in a way, the key to Leigh's story. The sophisticated veneers of career girls inevitably cover messes of loneliness and need. And only a friend who Knew You When knows what it's like to come such a long way, baby, so alone. B+