The Great Wall
Unlike any American blockbuster you've seen, a conservative movie with action set pieces that are actually inventive and thrilling enough to be worthwhile.
The world of Mike Leigh is one of small victories, painfully earned. His characters don't have lives that are easily transformed; they can't remake themselves overnight, as self-help success stories. They're stuck with who they are and what they started out with, and somehow they find the courage to carry out essential upkeeps and improvements.
"Career Girls,'' Leigh's first film since the heralded "Secrets and Lies," is about two 30ish women who were college roommates six years ago in London. Now they meet again. Have their lives improved? Yes. Are they where they want to be? No. Are they confident they can get there? Not very.
Annie (Lynda Steadman) takes the train to London to meet Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge), who still lives there. Annie is as taut as a guitar string; she doesn't talk, she jerks the words free from her inhibitions. She's better now, though, than she was on the first day when she came to see Hannah in response to a roommate-wanted ad. In those days Annie had a nasty skin condition that covered half her face, and it wouldn't take a specialist to guess the rash was connected to nerves.
Leigh likes to let scenes develop in their own time. They don't rush to a payoff, because how the characters talk is often more important than their conclusions. Both actresses are highly mannered (or Leigh directs them to be), and as we watch, we're reminded of how smooth and articulate most characters are in the movies--why, you'd almost imagine someone had written out all the words for them to memorize! Not Annie, who seems blazingly self-conscious, and not Hannah, who is so wound up that words come tumbling out like an assault. I was reminded of a good performance in a much different movie--Benicio del Toro's work in the new "Excess Baggage," where he also finds a new tone for his dialogue, lazy and coiling. Distinctive speech styles can be an affectation, or they can be a gift from the actor: "Career Girls" is like a workshop on conversational self-defense.