The Critics: To the mannered born

The Young British Artists grabbed all the headlines, but it was a good week for BritPop and young British actors too
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Real life is a dress rehearsal for being in a Mike Leigh film. As he explains, "I get the actors to live through years in the characters' lives in order to arrive at the point where I finally drop anchor." The assumption is that months spent constructing fictional biography will produce something closer to nature than the traditional script-based approach. However, despite this meticulous simulation of genuine experience, Leigh's work is no less mannered than Greenaway's, no more "real" than Merchant- Ivory's, and as full of italicised performance as a Carry On. Career Girls (15) exhibits all of these characteristics. And there's nothing wrong with that: it's also a jewel of a film.

Lynda Steadman and Katrin Cartlidge are Annie and Hannah, lapsed college friends reunited for a weekend together in London. In a series of flashbacks to their student days, we get a measure of how they've changed, how they've stayed the same: Annie's dermatitis has abated and she can now look people in the eye; Hannah has a new power haircut, but her alcoholic mother is still a suffocating problem. Then - providentially - they run across the three main players in their reminiscences. For a drama founded on improvisation, Career Girls is as reliant upon plotted coincidence as any Victorian melodrama.

Indeed, Leigh is a type of Dickensian: he has a nose for melancholy, a class-conscious sense of farce, an instinct for social observation and a passion for scabrous caricature. He's a satirist who magnifies his characters' eccentricities into cartoonish deformity. (Think of Alison Steadman in blue eye-shadow, laughing like a drain in Abigail's Party, or Timothy Spall's farcical restaurateur in Life is Sweet.) Here, Katrin Cartlidge purses her lips and goes through vocal contortions; Lynda Steadman flicks her fringe and speaks in a strangulated falsetto; their mate Ricky (Mark Benton) stutters desperately and keeps his eyes shut like the Mole in Deputy Dawg. One scene between the three friends in a mildewed flat over a Chinese chippy feels like a convention for convulsives. These are performances removed from conventional naturalism, animated by a palsied hysteria, a hare-eyed, cranked-up, jittery lunacy produced by the forcing-house thoroughness of Leigh's rehearsal room. They are individually brilliant, but when everyone twitches together, the cast seems so overstuffed with characterful nuance that performances become oddly detached from actors.

Dennis Potter once identified this kind of ironic distance as a patronising cruelty in Leigh's work, but it's the source of much of Career Girls' fun. It allows Leigh space to construct an elaborate dialogue of mixed metaphor ("He went on to greener pastures and I was left holding the baby"), neologism ("Does she still favouritise Francesca?") and one-liner ("On a clear day you can see the class struggle from here"). It also suggests the tragic disconnectedness of his characters, which since Bleak Moments has been his most insistent, most political theme. Essentially, he's a state-of-the-nation storyteller. But it's not a mirror that he's holding up to nature, it's a camera.

The same is true of Charles Castle (Toby Stephens), the hero of Nick Willing's Photographing Fairies (15). Castle, a photographer with the morbid specialism of creating composite images that reunite Somme- bereaved parents with their dead sons, is well placed to expose hoaxes like the famous Cottingley case that conned Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. However, after Castle has been down the Theosophical Society to kick credulous butt, Bea Templeton - a country vicar's wife and closet acolyte of Madame Blavatsky - approaches him with photographic evidence of what Fox Mulder would call "fairy activity". It's oddly similar to the Hammer-ish horror The Asphyx (1973) which starred Toby's father, Robert Stephens - but Willing rejects the usual repertoire of Gothic devices, instead employing a rural aesthetic lifted straight from that minor school of Edwardian painting that you see on Antiques Roadshow and the lids of old ladies' biscuit tins. It's perfect visual shorthand for the post-Victorian and pre-Modernist period of British history that - uncertain and backward-looking - was boomtime for spirit rappers and amateur mystics.

Willing handles his plot and atmosphere with dexterity, but his script (co-written with Chris Harrald) is riddled with clunky lines - a name- check for Sir Edward Carson, Oscar Wilde's prosecutor, is a case in point. But his first-rate cast (primarily Emily Woof and Ben Kingsley) play the dialogue better than it deserves, and Willing's delicate sense of the uncanny lends his film an unsettling power. Inevitably, the supernatural creatures themselves disappoint: although their icy indifference moves them away from Tinkerbell and towards the inhuman creatures of Yeats's writings, their digital luminosity appears anachronistic. And something should have been done to make them look less like the bastard children of Sindy and Limahl.

Like his earlier success, Muriel's Wedding, PJ Hogan's My Best Friend's Wedding (PG) is a musical in disguise. A romantic comedy in which a jealous Julia Roberts attempts to wreck the forthcoming marriage of an old flame (Dermot Mulroney) to a sugary society belle (Cameron Diaz), its songs are left to convey the emotional complexity. A bit lazy, but it works. A karaoke night establishes the decency of Diaz's character, "The Way You Look Tonight" stands in for dialogue expressing the supposed intensity of Roberts's and Mulroney's affair. But, as Roberts's gay confidant, Rupert Everett gets the best musical scene of all: as the wedding party dines in a kitschy seafood restaurant where the waitresses wear lobster gloves, he spins the tall story of how he first met Roberts while visiting Dionne Warwick in a mental institution. Which provides him with a perfect excuse for a claw-crackingly hilarious rendition of "I Say a Little Prayer". As the last harmony fades, you realise that Everett has just hoiked himself from the C-list to the A- list.

Deep Crimson (18) is a competent remake of The Honeymoon Killers, relocated to Mexico by director Arturo Ripstein. His revisions are primarily to the female half of the plot's pair of serial killers: Regina Orozco's Coral is a softer character than Shirley Stoler's butcher-bitch of the 1969 original, and Ripstein gives her a pair of children to abandon tearfully for her partner in crime. If you've seen the Kastle version you assume that maternal sentiment will be used to motivate the conclusion, but inexplicably, Ripstein defeats that expectation. Though the film is a slightly pointless exercise, it does have a certain ghoulish flamboyance.

In Gallivant (15), director Andrew Kotting tours the increasingly depopulated British coastline in the company of his granny (Gladys, 85) and his daughter (Eden, seven), whose Joubert's syndrome means that she may not outlive her great-grandmother. Despite a fascinating premise, Kotting's shortcomings as an interviewer lame the project at the outset. His questions are either crashingly obvious, vague or somewhat egotistical, and he has also deliberately edited what he calls "the sentimental" from his film. This possibly explains its skewed emphasis on the otiose, and why - despite being the focus of attention - the voices of Eden and Gladys seem suppressed. I suspect there is a really good documentary on the cutting-room floor.

Persuade the projectionist to run Spawn (12) backwards and it will probably reveal hidden Satanic messages. It might also make more sense. It's the everyday story of a psychopath (Michael Jai White) offered the job of leading Satan's armies in the upcoming Armageddon - which gives some insight into the actor-agent Faustian pact that got Nicol Williamson and Martin Sheen into the cast. Williamson, dressed as Toulouse-Lautrec, mumbles cod Yodaisms to a third-rate superhero. Sheen suffers the indignity of a joke along the lines of "You can have your apocalypse now", which only adds cruel insult to injury. However, there is some mitigating unintentional humour. When White is reunited with his daughter - who doesn't recognise him in his "necroplasmic armour" - she asks his name. "Er, Spawn," he replies. So that's what they mean by diabolical dialogue.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 8.

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