The glory of Katrin Cartlidge (1961-2002)
I first saw Cartlidge in Naked, Mike Leigh's brilliant movie about a misanthropic philosopher, played to perfection by David Thewlis (who never got another role as good as this and was relegated to playing supporting roles in crappy Hollywood blockbusters, including some wizard movies). Thewlis' Johnny has unpleasant sex with Cartlidge's Sophie, and Cartlidge's raw sexuality is astounding. She was not what you would call beautiful - in fact, she was often ugly in her films. But her acting is so powerful that we fall in love with her whenever she's on screen, no matter how evil her character occasionally could be.
She followed up Naked with Before the Rain, which is one of my favorite movies of the 1990s and one that remains inexplicably not on DVD. What the crap? It's a movie about the war in Macedonia that circles back on itself in a wonderfully constructed loop. Cartlidge plays the girlfriend of a Slavic photographer who is abandoned when he returns to the Balkans. It's not the biggest role, but she sells it well, and we can feel the pain in her soul when she speaks to her estranged husband and when her lover leaves her. It's a beautiful movie, and I would love to see it again (I saw it in the theater 13 years ago, and it's stuck with me).
She plays Emily Watson's best friend in Breaking the Waves, and is excellent as she tries to bring Watson back from the brink once she begins to slide into debauchery. It's another excellent role in an excellent movie (have Watson - in her first movie! - and Stellan Skarsgård ever been better?). Cartlidge makes Watson's weird descent even more heart-breaking, because she can't stop it.
In 1997 Cartlidge teamed with Leigh again for a "comedy," Career Girls. It's funny enough, I guess, but not really what you think of as a "comedy." Cartlidge meets her ex-college roommate, Annie (played by Lynda Steadman), after several years. What's interesting about the film is that Hannah (Cartlidge) and Annie weren't really friends in college, but they have that familiarity we share with people occasionally even if we're not really friends. Over the course of a weekend, they wander around London at meet a bunch of characters. Yes, it's a Mike Leigh movie, and that means plot is secondary! Hannah and Annie come to realize that they weren't friends back in the day, but as they have their "adventures," they become friends. Cartlidge is magnificent, because Hannah is the more successful of the pair and is somewhat contemptuous of Annie early in the movie. But her transformation into someone who cares about Annie and becomes less concerned with the material aspects of life is fantastic, and at the end, we care about about both these women more than we should in a movie. It's another stunning turn by Cartlidge.
Cartlidge continued to make movies, but I missed more and more of her work because they either didn't make it to theaters where I lived or I was in the process of moving and not seeing many movies. She had roles in Topsy-Turvy, another Leigh film about Gilbert and Sullivan and the making of "The Mikado," and although it's a great movie, her role isn't that huge. The final film I saw her in was From Hell, in which she played Annie Chapman, the first prostitute killed by Jack the Ripper. It's a small role, but Cartlidge sinks her teeth into and gives it the dignity it deserves.
Cartlidge made only two more movies after From Hell, and I saw neither of them. I can't remember when I heard that she had died (in 2002-2003 I was busy with the baby, so I wasn't paying much attention to entertainment anymore), but I can't be reminded that she's dead without feeling a rather intense feeling of sadness. I have no idea if Cartlidge was an evil bitch in real life, but I do know that every time I saw her in a movie, I was captivated. There are very few actors who can do that for me. In fact, the list is probably Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emma Thompson, and Brad Pitt in addition to Cartlidge (yes, I have actually watched parts of Nanny McPhee because of Thompson's presence, and Pitt makes The Mexican watchable). Her presence was so overwhelming, and she commanded the entire screen whenever she showed up. Go rent one of these or her other movies. You'll be astonished how truly great she was.