Mike Leigh Meets the Cure: The Three-Chord Nostalgia of Career Girls

“In an instant, I remembered everything.”

The Cure, “The Walk”

It’s the mid-1980s, and a student in a black leather jacket walks down the hall of Polytechnic of North London. Her hair is dyed a shocking orange, maybe to pull focus from her face, which is raw and scaly with dermatitis. She’s curled around herself, afraid to look up, but you know she feels your eyes on her—watch the way her muscles flinch, so close to her skin. Quick: What’s her favorite band?

In Mike Leigh’s Career Girls (1997), we first encounter that young woman, Annie (Lynda Steadman), all grown-up, skin clear, on her way from the Northeast to reconnect with her former uni roommate, citydweller Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge), over the course of a weekend. It’s ten years on from their first meeting, and Hannah wants to know if Annie thinks London has changed much over the past half-decade. She thinks a minute: “It has and it hasn’t.” This throat-achingly bittersweet film about time and place—about aging and friendship and the things that change and the things that stay the same—evokes the simultaneous distance and immanence of the past with the only musical act on the soundtrack: the Cure. 

No band since the three-chord revolution has been more associated with the vulnerability of youth, with emotions too private to share and too massive to keep private. Robert Smith’s gloomily masochistic love songs and look-at-me-don’t-look-at-me goth getup hit hardest when you’re at your most melodramatic and edgy. Forever after, listening to the Cure triggers a full-body shiver of adolescence, like the red-hot sear of pot smoke at the back of your throat. You feel, in retrospect, mortification and loving indulgence for your younger, new-skinned self, and the old mood of luxurious self-pity takes a different shade: Do you still listen to pop music the way you did when you were younger? Do you still get emotional over art? Do you still get emotional over anything, the way you used to? 

For Career Girls, his follow-up to the Palme d’Or–winning Secrets and Lies (1996), Leigh approached the Cure about using their music in the film, and the band accepted on the condition that they not share the soundtrack with any other act. Leigh used five tracks off 1983’s singles collection Japanese Whispers, plus the 1984 track “The Caterpillar,” to score Annie and Hannah’s college days. Such synching of his sensibility with that of a pop group remains unique in Leigh’s oeuvre, though upon release more attention was paid to the film’s use of flashbacks. Leigh was by then renowned for his extensive preproduction work with actors, developing their characters through improvisation before going off to write them into a script. Here, much of the backstory generated in that initial collaboration goes on-screen, beginning when Annie shows up to interview for the open bedroom in Hannah’s flat.

Twitchiness is the operative metaphor here: the Cure’s early output—spiky, angsty postpunk, vacillating between dark antisocial posing and excitable riffing—is a synecdoche for the behavioral tics of youth. In their first meeting, Annie worries at her rampant dermatitis, and stares down or holds her head atilt, seemingly physically unable to raise her eyes to meet Hannah’s. Hannah pulls faces, throws eyebrows, and tells private jokes in a voice that’s elastic and strident almost to the point of aggressive; her words are a carapace. She has to say something, even if it’s a flagrantly hurtful observation about Annie’s scabby cheek. She does voices and speaks in puns (compulsive wordplay being a common affliction of Leigh’s characters). “Lovecats” is on the stereo—that yelping cosplay anthem of sexual neediness disguised as a cutesy, kittenish “bite and scratch”—and a love of the Cure is the first thing Hannah and Annie bond over. Like their apartment, and their friendship, it’s a space they can share; the music’s nervous energy matches their own.

But spaces change; gentrification is inevitable. (London real estate is key to this roommate drama, and it’s notable that the film’s only significant speaking part who doesn’t appear in any of the eighties flashbacks is a boorish futures trader, played by Andy Serkis, who lives in a luxury high-rise overlooking the Thames.) Cutting back and forth between a nineties present and an eighties past, Career Girls shows us the way the idiosyncrasies of youth are subsumed into the equilibrium (more or less) of adult personality—just as, for the nineties scenes, the music of the Cure gives way to the aural earth tones of Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s score. Fevered hormonal oscillations are smoothed out by supper-club smooth jazz. Punk is dead, sacrificed on the altar of adulthood. Skin clears up, twitches still themselves, without your doing. Time just . . . passes. Though old habits still resurface, like acne scars in a flush, Steadman gives Annie’s voice less of a quaver in the nineties scenes, and Cartlidge makes her voice less muscular. While their place in college was dark and dirty as a dive bar, with movie posters barely visible in the blue-lit murk, the old roomies reconnect in thirty-year-old Hannah’s attic flat in Kentish Town, which has a garden view and creamy walls reflecting natural light.

It’s Annie and Hannah’s grubby old student flat, over a Chinese takeaway at the corner of Rousden Street in Camden, that’s the film’s key location, chief among the many memories that come “flooding back” to Annie as she returns to a city still littered with traces of a life that used to be hers—especially of one moment forever linked in her mind with a Cure song. The film turns on memories of Hannah and Annie’s one-time couch-crasher Ricky (Mark Benton). Ricky, with his baby fat and greasy hair—shaved on the sides, long in the back—moves in with his armloads of records and blank tapes, and soon enough becomes a regular at the takeaway downstairs, making late-night runs for curry and chips. Guileless and helpless, Ricky rubs his face with his index finger—it’s his young-adult tic—and he squints when he talks, tightly. He can’t finish a sentence any more than he can read a room, though it’s painfully clear he has lots to say.

One Saturday night, the three of them are home in the flat, Annie and Hannah pogoing around the living-room floor to “The Walk.” Carried along by the music, their movement brings their whole selves to the surface with heart-tearing transparency. Annie sways, head down; Hannah marches, almost martial. Ricky sits this one out on the couch, slouching but rapt—and so they make a project of him, grabbing an arm apiece and pulling him up. “Want to see you dancing,” Hannah says over the music, encouraging Ricky’s offbeat little hops. As Robert Smith sings, “I kissed you in the water / and made your dry lips sing,” Ricky falls into rhythm. These kids are not cool, but the scene nevertheless has the feeling of a happy memory, one of those dorm-room Polaroids that ever after stands in for the most emotional, eventful few years of your life.

Through a cloud formed of the smoke of several hours’ cigarettes, Ricky’s odd, repetitive hand gestures could almost be a dance move; he can shake his head and sway without worrying about taking up too much space. His haircut even looks punk. It’s the most natural any of them appear in the college years—their uncertain, stop-start presence in the physical world is in rhythm with the jumpy, joyful music. The post-chorus keyboard zips up and down—“The Walk” was the Cure’s first Top 20 hit, and the beginning of their transition into a poppier sound, into a polished New Wave shimmer and wide mainstream acceptance. Ricky lets loose too, plays air guitar and screams; then they all scream, explode unself-consciously out into the world.

After Hannah pointedly goes to bed before Annie and Ricky, the music stops, and what follows is the cringiest of undergraduate rituals: two awkward people getting drunk together and letting their guard down until one of them chokes out an ill-advised, humiliating pass.

But it’s college—everyone’s awkward at that age, right? In their youth, and then in wistful reminiscence, Hannah and Annie are too naive to recognize what we eventually come to understand: that what they were seeing wasn’t just an awkward phase like theirs, but the undiagnosed symptoms of incipient mental imbalance. It is so unfair, what ends up happening to Ricky—so random and yet unappealable, that time soothes Annie and Hannah’s tics and not his, that they gain from its passage at least as much as they lose.

Alone in your room, listening to the Cure, you can hear yourself, your own stuttery, hesitant desires and fears, and somewhere within this identification is an invitation—to begin, as the band did with “The Walk,” to move toward others, to dance to their rhythm. It’s so unfair that Annie and Hannah’s memories of their awkward youth become a font of richness for their future selves in a way that his never can.

But you can’t go home again: in this city filled with private ghosts, the permanence of places just highlights the impermanence of the people who fill them. (And just think what the rent must be on Rousden Street all these decades on.) When Annie and Hannah stop by their old flat, the Chinese takeaway is boarded up, and wheatpasted posters over the windows advertise the new release by the Cure. (It’s Wild Mood Swings, the Used bin staple of the late nineties and early ’00s, released with Britpop and Blair ascendant, and the twenty-year retro cycle about to claim the Cure as an “eighties band” for millennial students.) Suddenly a stranger in her own history, Hannah marvels: “I haven’t listened to them for ages.” Sentimental Annie does, “now and again.” Is there any doubt that she, like Robert Smith, remembers everything?

Career Girls is now available to stream on the Criterion Channel.