Bright Lights Film Journal

Her Brilliant Career: Honoring Katrin Cartlidge (1961-2002)

Katrin Cartlidge, born May 15, 1961, died on September 7, 2002 at age 41. Julian Upton’s tribute to this remarkable actress first appeared in Bright Lights in November 2003.

* * *

When Brookside started in November 1982, it instantly revolutionised the British TV soap opera. Cheaply videotaped with outside broadcast equipment in and around real, purposely built houses in a faceless modern suburb of Liverpool, it had the unglamorous hue of a local news report, an ugly and slightly jarring visual quality that it shared with contemporary TV dramas such as Boys from the Blackstuff and Auf Widersehen, Pet. And Brookside showed societal ugliness in a way no soap opera had done before. Bad language, unemployment, urban disillusionment, militant politics and domestic violence — all had controversially hijacked the storylines within weeks of its beginning. What made all this watchable, indeed endearing, was a constant thread of humour and the quality of the writing and acting.

The cast of Brookside‘s early years is a roll call of talented actors, many of whom went on to find genuine success in the UK, albeit on the small screen: Sue Johnston, Ricky Tomlinson, Amanda Burton, John McArdle, Alexandra Pigg. And unique amongst this initial line-up was Katrin Cartlidge.

Even in the company of other good actors, there was something more intense and unflinching about Katrin Cartlidge. Playing Lucy Collins, the troubled daughter of the neighbourhood’s petit bourgeois family, she constantly bristled with an insolent ennui and a mild subversiveness. Somewhat portentously, she drifted through storylines that dealt with promiscuity, disillusionment, and petty theft with the cool detachment of a character in an arthouse film. Thin-lipped, unsmiling, and angular-featured, Cartlidge as Lucy Collins was never conventionally pretty, but she was gracious, controlled, and deep, and underneath her cool contempt boiled a defiant sexuality. These were the very qualities that the actress was later to hone for uncompromising works of the cinema.

In retrospect, given the strength of her future choices and performances, Cartlidge seems to have stayed with Brookside rather longer than was necessary. By the time of her departure in 1988, the soap was already betraying elements of the outrageous farce it later became. Murders, sieges, kidnappings, confrontational lesbianism — all went on to afflict this supposedly unremarkable cul-de-sac. It was quite clear, as the eighties closed, that as far as Brookside‘s producers were concerned, bums on seats were much more important than social comment.

This regrettable transition may have spurred Cartlidge onto new things, but initially she seemed a little directionless. She had a small role in Eat the Rich (1987) and, on television, Funseekers (1988) but these seemed like odd choices for someone so intense and intelligent. It took a few more years before it was clear that Cartlidge — cool, perceptive, self-aware — had her eye on the bigger picture.

While the best of her Brookside contemporaries were launching themselves into lucrative contracts in higher-profile television dramas, Katrin held back, got more stage experience and did her research. When she next made a splash on the screen, in 1993, it was with a small but haunting performance in Mike Leigh’s Naked. Cartlidge’s intensity was ideally suited to the desolate brutality of Naked. As Sophie, the druggie flatmate, she brings the right level of emotional distance her part, a darkly moulded background eccentric typical of Leigh’s serio-comic work. But the aftermath of her sexual brutalisation is played with a primal force that is unflinching, and betrays a powerful investment in the character.

Naked achieved much domestic and international acclaim, and the exposure it afforded Katrin could have propelled her to leading roles in more mainstream British film and television, perhaps even to the U.S. But the actress instead took the path that came to define her. Eschewing the “easier projects,” she instead chose to work next with Macedonian director Milcho Manchesvki in Before the Rain (1994). In one of three stories that sets the emotionally draining metropolis of London against the increasing volatility of rural Macedonia, Cartlidge plays a complicated, seemingly unsympathetic character. Although not fully successful, Before the Rain provides an early confirmation of her willingness to risk alienating the casual viewer. This was certainly not the characteristic of a star in the making, but key to her development as an actress.

When, in 1996, she appeared as Emily Watson’s sister-in-law in Lars von Trier‘s Breaking the Waves, it seemed that Katrin’s talent for identifying provocative, edgy, progressive projects was becoming more sophisticated. Although, arguably, Lars von Trier later became something of a Dogme prankster, Breaking the Waves is an emotionally grating and visually striking piece of work, laced with jet-black comedy and playful subversion. And, dominated as the film is by outsiders, extremists, and fantasists, Cartlidge, as Watson’s protective, buttoned-up sister-in-law, brings a necessary, if dourly humourless, touchstone of practical realism. She later claimed that working with von Trier had transformed her way of thinking as an actor.

Cartlidge then reunited with Mike Leigh to co-carry his Career Girls (1997), but that film and her performance suffers from a directorial lapse in character development. This is a pity, because the contemporary scenes in Career Girls showed a new side to Cartlidge, one that was adept at one-liners and serio-comedy. Sadly, the flashback scenes — where the actress plays her character in her younger days, all nervous tics and immature bravado — are excessive and overindulgent, and fall wide of the mark. (Although the jury of the 1997 Evening Standard Awards clearly thought otherwise, and voted her Best Film Actress of the Year.)

The following year, however, Lodge Kerrigan’s Claire Dolan (1998) afforded Cartlidge the opportunity to give the ultimate “arthouse” performance. Detached, damaged, and degraded, she pushed herself to new extremes here, as the emotionally stunted prostitute paying for her sick mother’s care by whoring herself unsmilingly around New York.

Cartlidge may have been too old now for the Samantha Morton/Kate Winslet roles that might have started to come her way, but she was already carving her niche in world cinema. As the nineties closed, she was journeying around the world, picking and choosing to work with directors who, in her own words, “I feel will produce something original, revealing and provoking.” Significantly, she was also being called upon, increasingly, to sit on judging panels at international film festivals. She had, somewhat uniquely for an ex-soap supporting actor, ascended to a level of artistic fulfillment that is usually reserved for the lionesses of European cinema.

As the new millennium began, Cartlidge was in a position to fluctuate between small parts in more commercial pictures (Dark Annie Chapman in From Hell, 2001 ) and central roles in provocative international films. Her last major impact was as the mercenary TV correspondent in Danis Tanovic’s extremely black Bosnian war comedy No Man’s Land (2001), a film that went on to beat the popular favourite Amelie to the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

But Cartlidge’s career was then cut short by a tragedy that was as shocking and as unexpected as anything she had been involved with onscreen. In early September 2002, she began complaining of flu symptoms, which became so pronounced that her partner later took her to hospital, near her home in North London. There she was diagnosed with pneumonia, and very soon septicaemia (blood poisoning) set in. She fell into a critical condition and died on 7th September. She was forty-one.

A few years before, Cartlidge had said “I actually like getting older. I hated my twenties; I couldn’t wait to be thirty. I’m really looking forward to turning forty, if I get there.” Although it is with a tragic irony that we now read that, it also goes some way to explaining the slow-burning impact of her career and her growing power as an actress. There were many more films to come; some would have been broader in appeal, but all would doubtless have been interesting, if only for the very reason that Cartlidge had chosen to be in them. One thing was pretty certain, she was never likely to turn up in the latest Austin Powers movie, however well known she might have become.

It is highly likely that, in her forties, Katrin would have chosen roles that would have consolidated her importance in international cinema. She may have become comparable to the great Isabelle Huppert — she certainly had the same passion, commitment, and cinematic courageousness. Her loss has been keenly felt by a legion of serious film-makers and fans.

Selected Filmography

1985: Sacred Hearts (UK)
1987: Eat the Rich (UK)
1993: Naked (UK)
1994: Look Me in the Eye (UK)
1994: Before the Rain (Macedonia)
1996: Breaking the Waves (Denmark/Sweden/France/Netherlands/Norway}
1997: Career Girls (UK)
1997: Saint-Ex (UK)
1998: Claire Dolan (France/US)
1998: The Lost Son (GB/France)
1998: The Cherry Orchard (Greece/Cyprus/France)
1999: Topsy-Turvy (UK)
2000: The Weight of Water (France)
2001: No Man’s Land (Slovenia)
2001: From Hell (UK/US)
2002: Dogville