Katrin Cartlidge in Claire Dolan

In a Guardian interview in October 2001, Katrin Cartlidge told Maddy Costa that, having turned 40, she was beginning to regret not having had children. In 2002 she appeared in Rosanna Arquette’s documentary Searching for Debra Winger, a title chosen to reflect Winger’s decision to quit Hollywood, and a film in which actresses were invited to talk about the pressures of the work. All the more tragic, then, that Katrin Cartlidge has died, aged merely 41, of pneumonia and septicaemia with complications on 7 September.

With hindsight, Cartlidge descended from a tradition of postwar English stage actresses – Rita Tushingham, Glenda Jackson, Miranda Richardson – whose severe beauty and dedication to portraying English women’s experiences contributed to a social realist aesthetic frequently seen as Britain’s main claim to film art. But if certain Cartlidge characters bear comparison with the delinquent outsiders essayed by Juliette Binoche (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Leos Carax, 1991), Karin Viard (Emmène-moi, Michel Spinosa, 1994) and Natacha Regnier (La Vie rêvée des anges, Erick Zonca, 1998), they marked Cartlidge’s participation in an international debate about the nature of cinematic veracity.

To British cinemagoers, she will always be known for her roles in Mike Leigh’s essays from the urban English landscape. With a ski jump for a nose, an expressive but unglamorous mouth, that north London accent, and that slight figure, you could have taken her for a shop assistant. She could have been a prostitute. She could have been your best friend. In conversation with me following the June 2000 British release of Claire Dolan (Lodge Kerrigan, 1998), she reflected that “people see me as a kind of grungy person. In fact, I have a running battle with my looks because it seems to me that films are becoming more and more and more about the average good-looking person. But I don’t fit into that. I don’t look like your obvious model.” (1) Cartlidge’s slightly witchy mien became Sophie, the Goth in Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993), the film with which, after paying the bills as Lucy Collins in Channel 4 soap Brookside in the 1980s, Cartlidge became a fixture in the British arthouse constellation. With few possessions – an ‘S’ that fell off a department store sign – to mark her passing through this angry film, the vulnerable but stupid Sophie remains a symptom of a generation disenfranchised and pathetic before the vengeful individualism of the Thatcher years. Meant to signal Sophie’s hip membership of an alternative subculture, her black leather bodice with its “hippy-shit” (2) tassels and black tights signal merely anonymous subsumption, delayed self-determination. Desperately seeking love and identity in a relationship, she becomes hysterical when rejected by the apparently self-sufficient outsider Johnny (David Thewlis). At one point, the sadistic yuppie landlord Sebastian (Greg Cruttwell) makes Sophie wear flat-mate Sandra’s nurse’s uniform (Claire Skinner). Stripped of her tribal accoutrements, Sophie is appalled.

The moment anticipates Cartlidge’s memorable turn in the powerful if politically questionable Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996). With her wispy hair pulled back in a bun and garbed in the now archaic National Health Service uniform of the early-’70s, Cartlidge’s Dodo resembles nothing so much as a latter-day Florence Nightingale. When she tells the bereft Bess (Emily Watson) that a woman “has to have a mind of her own”, she preaches the wisdom of self-determination only then starting to find its way into the average woman’s lexicon. But with the emotional logic of a ’40s ‘woman’s picture’, its male auteur furiously projecting the age-old binarism of virtue vs. vice onto his heroine, the best scenes in Trier’s film are those in which sisters-in-law Dodo and Bess, united in tragedy since Dodo’s husband’s death, take refuge in sisterhood. At moments they even look alike. Driven to pursue men for sex by her delirious husband, hounded out of church by self-righteous men, then stoned by passing schoolboys, Bess is eventually thrown to the ground. Frustrated by her friend’s dim-wittedness and by the community’s obdurate Presbyterian mentality, Dodo rushes to help. The deranged Bess turns to her friend and says: “I know you love me.” For its emotional honesty and its searching close-ups, this moment is so much more moving than that magic realist final scene in which bells ring in the sky following Bess’ burial at sea.

Katrin Cartlidge in Career Girls

For its portrait of female solidarity and its treatment of the role memory plays in everyday subjectivity, Career Girls (Leigh, 1997) is one of the most touching of recent British films. Unlike many of Cartlidge’s films in which she is never on screen for long enough, she and Lynda Steadman had the film to themselves. Again, it details a close friendship between two women, Hannah (Cartlidge) and Annie (Steadman), meeting up six years after leaving university. Like many of Leigh’s films, it catches London at a specific moment. Hannah is a student in the late-’80s: tuna-eating, Cure-loving, full of disillusionment on top of her personal demons. Studied more intently by the film and infinitely more self-aware than Sophie, Hannah – “It’s Han-nah, actually” – is a densely-textured character hiding behind wordplay – “Livin’ in the pasta” – gestures – “D’you wanna fight!” – and, lately, glasses as a power-dressing retail executive. Shaped by the need to care for an alcoholic mother and stand on her own two feet from a young age, Hannah is the product of endlessly internalized loneliness and rage. Cartlidge’s performance is virtuosic, a generous weave of frustration, aggression, irony, intelligence, humour, allusion and confession. Critics have accused Leigh’s characters of labouring tics and mannerisms. But I was at university at around the time Hannah was and I knew vulnerable women who took comfort in each other’s friendship as a gentler kind of loving. Preoccupied with other codes and rituals, mainstream society is a world away from these people in the process of growing.

The most powerful moments in Career Girls find Hannah letting her defences down and breaking down. When they run into Ricky (Mark Benton), a brilliant student friend now lonely, embittered and an incoherent manic depressive spouting non-sequiturs, he asks: “D’you wanna live forever?” Upset at seeing him this way, Hannah tearfully replies: “I certainly don’t.” In the light of recent events, Hannah’s reply is very sad. Yet, as if mirroring our helplessness before Cartlidge’s own end, there is nothing Hannah or Annie can do about Ricky. As Stella Bruzzi wrote in her Sight and Sound review in September 1997: “Rather than let us feel comforted and replenished by our cathartic experiences, it confronts us with the futility of film’s love of emotional identification.” (3) By this light, this latter-day woman’s picture, (if I may characterize its account of remembered female struggle thus), becomes less redemptive than Breaking the Waves, but more realistic and for that reason somehow more pleasing.

Adding to Cartlidge’s repertoire of social misfits is Emily in the Daniel Auteuil thriller The Lost Son (Chris Menges, 1998). This woolly-hatted refugee from a cruel world living in the Felixstowe docklands is perhaps Cartlidge’s nod to the British ‘traveller’ microculture to which the 1980s gave rise. Her high-class prostitute in Claire Dolan saw Cartlidge push herself in another direction. Typical of the sort of auteur project to which she was drawn, her own minimalist presence thoroughly fits the film’s blank corporate space. Wrote Jonathan Romney in The Guardian: “Her performance is all the more commanding for its absolute restraint, thick with the discomfort of half-glimpsed emotions under a tightly-reined surface.” (4) When I spoke to Cartlidge, she was reminded of the archetypal Hollywood woman’s picture heroine suffering in mink updated to the contemporary Manhattan business district. “There is a kind of nostalgia in the way Claire Dolan is central in the film which I think is quite interesting to play around with in a modern sense.” (5) For its ambivalent attitude towards this suffering modern pragmatist, it is interesting to see Claire Dolan alongside Breaking the Waves’ punishing rhetoric. Cartlidge regretted the passing of a particular type of Depression-bred American heroine who inhabited that dimly lit alleyway between traditional virtue and vice. “We don’t see female characters like that any more. They’ve always got to be eliciting a certain amount of sympathy. Or they have to be sexually attractive. To see a complex woman who isn’t playing for us is good and challenging.” (6)

Amongst roles for the Hughes Brothers, Kathryn Bigelow and others, Katrin Cartlidge was the perfect choice for the difficult and uningratiating title role of Varya in Michael Cacoyannis’ 1999 adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. She was due to work with Lars von Trier again in Dogville with Nicole Kidman. The screen is going to be a poorer place without her.


  1. Richard Armstrong, “Katrin Cartlidge, connecting to the silences”, www.audiencemag.com, 2002
  2. Mike Leigh, Naked, Faber and Faber, London, 2000, p.17
  3. Stella Bruzzi, “Career Girls”, Sight and Sound, September, 1997, p.38
  4. Jonathan Romney, “In the Jungle of Cities”, The Guardian, 5 May, 2000, p.8
  5. Richard Armstrong, www.audiencemag.com, 2002
  6. Ibid

About The Author

Richard Armstrong is the author of Understanding Realism (British Film Institute, 2005) and co-author of the Rough Guide to Film (Penguin, 2007). He is currently researching a PhD on representations of mourning in cinema at Cambridge University.

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