Who is the most overrated film director in the world right now? For me, the answer would have to be Mike Leigh, of Secrets & Lies (1996) fame. I have often commented, throughout the '90s, on Leigh's dubious cinematic achievements, his limited style, and his baleful influence. As if to bear out my prognosis, Career Girls is terrifyingly bad.
Career Girls is about two women, Annie (Lynda Steadman) and Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge). We first see them in their thirties, when they are career girls of the 1990s – smartly dressed, well spoken, living in modestly yuppie surrounds. As they prepare to reunite after some years apart, the film begins a series of very clumsily triggered flashbacks to the 1980s, when Annie and Hannah were university students. The student flashback seems like an episode of the British comedy The Young Ones. It's chaotic, messy, frazzled, and everyone dumps on everyone else – the way everyday life is usually depicted in a Mike Leigh film.
Although the film is being sold as a comedy, it's a very brittle comedy indeed. In the '80s, Annie has severe dermatitis over half her face, making her extremely shy and neurotic. Hannah is an unpleasantly strident punk-type with apparently few nice feelings for anyone or anything. Then there's their mutual friend Ricky (Mark Benton) – a man with more problems than you can possibly imagine. When he propositions Annie, one tawdry, drunken night, she rejects him – and that sends him straight out the door and onto the road to complete ruin.
So we have the women as youthful messes in the '80s and upwardly mobile careerists in the '90s. We have Ricky as a disaster in the '80s and an absolute tragedy by the '90s, by which time he has become a pathetic, raving bag man on the street. More than with most films, Career Girls had me asking the question: what is the point of this exercise? Mike Leigh has always practised a very fuzzy form of social analysis: if every single one of his characters starts off bad and mainly only gets worse, this is apparently because of the over-arching decline in British society. This sad song has been reprised so many times in Leigh's movies that I have come to doubt its sincerity. Mainly, this paper-thin social critique seems to act as the convenient cover for an extraordinary display of misanthropy.
Leigh's films are hateful. He milks a kind of black humour from the ailments of his characters – physical, psychological, spiritual – and this humour seems, in the first and last instance, simply cruel, without any redeeming theme, sensibility or ethic underlying it. Furthermore, much of Leigh's misanthropy is in fact straight-out misogyny – I always shudder when he turns his attention to "women's problems", because his approach is to blame women for their problems. Career Girls cannot really be saying, can it, that Annie's sexual rejection of Ricky destroys him, turning him into a poor bastard deserving of our deepest sympathy? I fear that this is indeed what the film is saying.
Career Girls is a poor film on every level. Its narrative construction is lumbering; individual scenes and incidents are mostly uninspired; the staging and editing have the usual Leigh flatness. The soundtrack music has the same old wallpaper Muzak effect; and Leigh's attempts to work in a bit of groovy pop as a counterpoint – the women seem to have some vaguely special relationship with the music of The Cure – gives no energy or colour whatsoever. But beyond these killing flaws and limitations, there are bigger fish floating around in this movie that are worth frying.
Has there ever been the slightest moment of joy in a Mike Leigh film? When I saw Secrets & Lies, a British-born colleague bemoaned to me the fact that Leigh never seems able to show his miserable bunch of everyday characters just hanging out at the pub, having a drink and a laugh – and that puts his films a long way from, say, Stephen Frears' films from the Roddy Doyle novels, The Snapper (1993) and The Van (1996).
Misery gets much, much deeper in Leigh's world-view. His Naked (1993) showed us how grimly he regards the sexual act – in that movie all sex is keyed solely to the experiences of pain, humiliation, psychological dominance or submission, and boredom. Has there ever been an orgasm in a Mike Leigh film? – not one that I've noticed, and Career Girls does nothing to change this pristine record, with its mucky little scrap of miscommunication, bad vibes and cheerless fleshy fumbling in the boudoir.
Perhaps even more telling than the depiction of sex, is the depiction of that humble everyday pleasure, the pleasure of shopping. Career Girls, after all, is meant at one level to be an exploration, and an affirmation – at least I think it is – of friendship, female friendship in particular (I specify female friendship as the subject of the story, as there are no two men in it who enjoy even the slightest rapport). This puts Career Girls up against – let's be frank about this – the American comedy Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (David Mirkin, 1997), which is by far the better film.
What do Romy and Michele have that Annie and Hannah do not have? For starters, they enjoy shopping together, and the film partakes of that joy. When Leigh stages a scene of two women shopping, it's as if the overwhelming conventional femininity of the situation disgusts him. He has to turn it into a brittle, cruel, lame, joke – these girls are creatures of the '80s, so of course the only clothes they admire are jet black. In Romy and Michele, the many clothes-related gags are spirited and affectionate, allowing for both the piercing mockery of passing fads and the glamorous stylishness of individuals. For Leigh, fashion is all surface, all emptiness, only a sign of some looming malaise or basic human stupidity.
Leigh is probably incapable of making a film which would be an ode to female friendship. To be fair, there are one or two lively, even touching moments in Career Girls, as when Annie and Hannah share a laugh at the expense of some truly awful real-estate agents. But even this effort on Leigh's part to convey some positive female bonding seems forced – and, more tellingly, it's out of character with almost everything else in this relentlessly negative movie.
Leigh receives a lot of publicity, and rather too much praise, for his method of working with actors. He arrives at the characterisations, as well as the actual dialogue, through a process of intensive workshopping and improvisation before the shoot. There are probably a lot of directors who do something like this, including the Australian director Bill Bennett, but none get quite the general acclaim for it that Leigh does. I have come to the firm conclusion, after all these years of Mike Leigh films, that I hate the acting in his films, and this is not (as one might guess) because of the burden of misanthropy these performances have to carry. Rather, it's simply because the acting itself is so extremely one-dimensional and repetitive. Leigh distils every character down to an unvarying catalogue of tics and mannerisms before the first foot of film has gone through the camera.
In Career Girls the catalogue goes something like this: Annie is shy, so she can never look anyone in the eye, she fidgets relentlessly, her hands flutter close to her body, and she ceaselessly twists her neck about in a little nervous spasm. Hannah is the tough one, so she speaks with Young Ones-style punk aggression, forcing out every phrase with a mock toffy accent – "my name is HannAH, if you please" – and jabbing a bunch of pointed fingers in the air as if to poke somebody's eye out. Her body language is tense, stiff, full of jagged, violent moments in the cramped space of her apartment – and these sharp, sudden movements at least prompt the only nimble camera-work you'll ever see in a Leigh movie.
Then there's the hapless bloke of this story, Ricky. He's a dysfunctional wreck: obese, eyes closed or squinting at all times, unable to speak more than one word at a time, each word separated by wheezes, groans and stammers, his hands making pitifully strangled and incommunicative gestures. Thirty minutes of that – before, during and after every line of dialogue – and Career Girls had me ready for the madhouse.
It's possible that I'm being just a little too mean towards this movie. After all, it's just a small film for Leigh – a quickie, made in the wake of his big dramatic effort on Secrets & Lies. Also, I have to face the possibility that I'm seizing on Career Girls – and the disappointed reception it's likely to get – as a comeuppance, after the absurd over-rating of Secrets & Lies – Career Girls is perhaps my revenge against Secrets & Lies.
But there's another reason, finally, why I might be slightly too keen to bash this movie. It's my theory, or my suspicion, that Leigh is more popular in Australia than just about anywhere in the world, including his own homeland. This naturally has something to do with the general Australian affinity with mucky British culture and the hard, laconic British sense of humour. But I feel that there's something deeper and more distressing in this Oz-Brit affinity. Leigh's cinema partakes not only of general misanthropy, but also of self-loathing. I have no absolute moral objection against self-loathing – sometimes there might be some very good reasons to loathe yourself! – but self-loathing tends to be a very inert and circular spectacle in the movies.
That's certainly how I experience Leigh's movies: as joyless, inert and circular, and it's precisely that aesthetic of self-loathing that some Australian filmmakers have been keen to emulate, down to the last nervous spasm afflicting the bodies of the actors. I'm thinking of films like Fistful of Flies (Monica Pellizzari, 1996) and especially Love Serenade (Shirley Barrett, 1996), which is so much like Career Girls in so many ways. After an American friend of mine saw Love Serenade, he asked me plaintively: "Why do you Aussies hate yourselves so much?" Now that's a very good (if somewhat uncomfortable) question, and I can't help but think that our curious national fondness for Mike Leigh's films is bound up somewhere in the answer.
© Adrian Martin September 1997