The Big Picture: Nostalgia merely obscures the truth that life is not so sweet

Mike Leigh's flawed but witty Career Girls follows a reunion between old pals Hannah and Annie, whose wistful recollections of their early friendship seem incongruous until the root of their emotional bond is revealed
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Mike Leigh is an uneven film-maker, but he's always uneven in the same way. Every film contains elements of the contrived and of the raw, next to each other or even occurring simultaneously, so that truthful observation overlaps with crude caricature, and schematic structures can yield moments of considerable emotional force. A Mike Leigh film is like some odd baker hybrid, a stoneground wholemeal loaf - nourishing, sometimes indigestible - with interior pockets of Wonder Loaf.

Career Girls is minor Leigh, reversing the trend in recent years towards greater range and a longer running-time. It tells the story of a female friendship, resumed and examined after a gap of six years. Annie (Lynda Steadman), shared a London flat with Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) when they were students in the 1980s, and comes down from Wakefield for a weekend visit. Both women are now employed and relatively successful, but much of the film takes place in flashback to their student days, filmed in murky blue tones. The present is airy and well-lit, while the past looks dingey and claustrophobic, but both characters seem to look back on it with affection and even gratitude. On the train down to London, Annie has already been reminiscing, and it isn't long before Hannah is presented with the same slightly stilted film language: a shot of a face in repose, smiling or neutrally musing, with warmly wistful music on the sound track, leads into an episode from the past.

In the present-day sequences, Annie and Hannah are casually smart in dress and self-presentation. As students, though, they were denizens of Mannerism Hell, that planet so extensively explored in previous Leigh films. Annie had bad skin and couldn't meet anybody's eyes. She had an asymmetrical ginger haircut with face-shadowing fringe, and flinched from virtually all human contact. Hannah, meanwhile, was the woman with the vitriol tongue, defending herself from the world with intense verbal aggressiveness.

When the two of them are joined in one scene by overweight Ricky (Mark Benton), the effect is simply grotesque. It's like a neurological conference, only for patients, not doctors. It doesn't help that the conversation starts from the idea that each individual has a "cardinal trait", Ricky has a speech impediment, and keeps raising his index finger to his right eye, while all the time telling twitchy Annie that she shouldn't look down at the floor so much. Hannah defends her friend by hitting Ricky below the belt (but then it's a point of honour for her never to strike above the belt), asking if his ample form is due to his stuffing his face with curry and chips, or simply the result of not getting any sex.

A scene like this derives from a highly artificial conception of character, according to which every single action, however trivial, reveals it. Elsewhere in the film, Cartlidge shows that she can apologise to Ricky "in character" as Hannah (waiting until he's safely asleep, and addressing him as Fatso,) and Steadman that she can doodle on a pad "in character" as Annie - sketching a series of Munch's The Scream. But these are acting exercises, not acts of insight. When it comes to Annie hesitantly describing her fantasy of being gang-banged to an insensitive boyfriend, the whole idea of "in character" begins to collapse. The Annie we've seen would go to her grave with her fantasies unexplored and unexpressed.

Mike Leigh has yet to make a film without false notes of this kind, but he also has yet to make a film without winning moments. Katrin Cartlidge's Hannah is given warp-speed wit as well as the desire to hurt, and there's a nice running gag about telling the future by sticking your finger in a copy of Wuthering Heights.

Annie and Hannah are unlikely friends, except that we soon learn they have plenty in common. Each was eight when her father left her mother. It's just that Annie takes the damage inside her self-punishingly, while Hannah acts out her rage. As the film goes on, the friendship seems positively programmatic, and the impression given is less of a relationship revealed than of a diagram showing through the accomplished camouflage of the acting.

Annie envies Hannah her independence, not seeing fully what it costs her. Hannah envies Annie her innocence, knowing that she herself is not strong enough to be so vulnerable. These are their reflections as mature women, looking back on the past as they eat in a fashionable Chinese restaurant. In Leigh's first film, Bleak Moments, there was an agonising scene of failed communication in a Chinese restaurants and the stark contrast between the two scenes with chopsticks and fried rice is only partly to do with changes in British emotional culture since 1971. Mike Leigh's outlook is much more positive these days, but it still seems to be based on a handful of simple assumptions (expression good, repression bad).

The incongruously American-seeming climax of Secrets and Lies, with Timothy Spall's character pleading for honesty and trust, is echoed here in a minor key. Annie and Hannah achieve self-knowledge of a textbook Freudian kind, albeit without benefit of therapy. Annie is treated badly by men because, thanks to her father's leaving, she longs so abjectly for their approval. Hannah can't function in relationships because, thanks to her father's leaving, she can only see the weaknesses in men, and can't bring herself to trust them. She feels that Annie is the only person who ever really appreciated her.

This bonding meal is the emotional climax of the film, but on either side of it are some extremely contrived encounters, which seem to be trying to paint a broader picture of social and personal change. In the course of Annie's weekend visit she and Hannah meet no less than three people from their student past - seemingly everyone from that time who affected their lives. There's the manipulative little shit who had brief affairs with them both, now reincarnated as an estate agent covertly sneering at the property he's showing off. There's even Ricky, alcoholic and / or mentally ill, washed up by the merest chance on the steps of the ex- chip shop that used to be next door to the girls' flat. He has turned up on cue, in the fullness of his damage, to fill in the pathos part of the diagram.

`Career Girls' goes on release today

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