One Actual, One Psychic: Mike Leigh’s Career Girls

In 1997, I was an American college student on a term abroad in London; it was the first time I’d been more than a thousand miles away from the small New Hampshire town where I was born. One of my favorite things about living in a large city for the first time was seeing movies that took place in the place where I was. I was finally living somewhere that was big and interesting and important enough to reflect back to me in popular culture!

I went to see Career Girls, not knowing too much about it other than it appeared to star two women who looked like slightly more attractive than average people I might see at a pub or shopping at Tescos. I wasn’t used to seeing relatively average-looking people centered as movie stars, grinning out from the poster with slightly stringy hair, imperfect teeth, and unpolished nails. I’d never seen a Mike Leigh movie before. I didn’t know it was possible to create an entire body of work about average people and their feelings, fears, and relationships.

The movie opens with Annie (Lynda Steadman) sitting on a train and smiling. She’s on her way back to London to visit her old college roommate, Hannah (the late, great Katrin Cartlidge.) She’s having a snack, she’s dressed nicely if not a bit conservatively, she’s smiling wistfully. We soon find out that she’s smiling at the memory of herself, ten years before, looking at roommate ads on a bulletin board. Here, in the flashback, she’s sloppily dressed in black, torn layers, she’s staring down, unable to watch where she’s going, let alone make eye contact with anyone, her hair is stiff and spiky and bright, Manic Panicky red, and one side of her chalky skin is covered in an angry, flaky rash. She is literally a walking open wound. I laughed, at the time, that this apparently happy, put-together woman could smile at a memory of herself at probably her most awkward and painful. Of course, now, looking back at myself watching this movie as an awkward, pained college student, I laugh in recognition.

She arrives at a London flat, steels herself to knock on the door, and finds Hannah on the other side, flanked by Claire, a giggling Madonnabe. They show her in; the apartment is dark, smoky, cramped, and dirty; the Cure plays in the background. I had never seen a college apartment that looked like an actual college apartment on screen before. I was transfixed.

I myself had bonded with my own best friend over the Cure six years before seeing Career Girls. When my mother got a job at a private high school, it was free for me to attend, and I found myself on the first day of school in a “day student room” full of seemingly carefree, effortlessly cool girls who had known each other for years. I perked up when one of them put on the Cure. I sang along tentatively, not knowing if singing along to music was going to put me even more on the outside of things, not knowing much of anything at all. “Oh, do you like the Cure?” she asked. “Yeah!” I replied. I knew a few songs, sort of. “Moi aussi,” she replied. We went to lunch together. We’re still friends, 25 years later. “The Cure! They’re my favorite band!” Annie tells Hannah and Claire, staring at her lap. She moves into the flat. She’s in.

Annie and Hannah embark on the sort of friendship that happens when you’re young and living nearly on top of each other. They use a well-worn copy of Wuthering Heights as a substitute Ouija board, asking “Ms. Bronte, Ms. Bronte, will I find a fella soon?” They make sloppy meals together and tell each other about their lives, discovering that both of their fathers walked out on them and their mothers when they were eight years old. Their mothers went in opposite directions; Hannah’s became a falling-down drunk alcoholic who needs to be cared for and looked after, while Annie’s becomes her clingy best friend. These are the types of coincidences that seem intimately spooky when revealing them to someone else for the first time. We all carry around so much pain and despair, and when we’re young, we don’t know where and when it’s safe to share this pain. We don’t know who’s going to look at us like we’ve grown two heads, like they don’t know what we’re even doing here, the way Claire does to Hannah and Annie several times throughout the movie. “That’s quite a coincidence!” Annie tells Hannah gratefully as they reveal their mutual missing fathers. “Synchronicity!” replies Annie. They discuss the difference between the two — according to Jung, Annie says, synchronicity is two things happening at once, one actual and one psychic. I realized as I watched that I myself was experiencing synchronicity while watching a movie in which experiences I had had, both actual and psychic, were reflected back to me on a screen. Hannah announces that she hasn’t cried since she was nine years old; Annie replies that she doesn’t think she’s stopped since she was eight. I was and am a copious crier, something I had always hated about myself, and envied others’ toughness and stoicism. My Cure-loving friend, for example, never cried, as far as I could tell. I would later learn that she fiercely hid her feelings and put forward a Hannah-like facade in order to survive. Synchronicity again.

Back in the present, Hannah meets Annie at the train, and they hug. They haven’t seen each other in six years. They set off on an entire weekend devoted to synchronicity, including running into a feckless, smug man, the gloriously named Adrian Spinks, whom they had both dated in quick succession in college. He, horrifyingly, doesn’t recognize or remember either of them. When rehashing the bizarre meeting over dinner, Hannah says she hasn’t thought about Adrian Spinks since college, despite being hurt when he dumped her for Annie, while Annie admits that she hasn’t stopped thinking about him in ten years. This, again, hit me hard while watching the movie then and now. My Cure-loving friend and I also dated the same guy in college and I had always felt both guilty and slightly dirty, taking her leftovers and ending up dumped and wistful at the end of it all, just like Annie. I didn’t know then how common it is for a group of people in the hothouse environment of college life to jump in and out of each others’ beds. I didn’t recognize this trope yet, and so I judged myself and comforted myself in at least seeing my experience once again reflected back at me from the screen.

Toward the end of the movie, Annie and Hannah walk through a park and are passed by a jogger who doesn’t glance at them — it’s Claire! “Talk about a bloody coincidence!” laughs Hannah, along with the audience. “Did you see where we were standing?” replies Annie. “At a crossroads! Very symbolic!” The past is constantly catching up to them, passing them by, and then catching up again. I see the same patterns in my own life; I think we all do. I am now older than the older versions Hannah and Annie; I’ll be 41 on my next birthday. Katrin Cartlidge died in 2002 at the age of 41. Her only IMDB quote reads: “I actually love getting older. I hated my 20s; I couldn’t wait to be 30. I’m really looking forward to turning 40, if I get there. And not just because things are more successful now, but because I think the older you get, the more you find life interesting apart from your own problems. So roll on. I can’t wait.” She just made it.