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Cartlidge, Katrin (1961-2002)


Main image of Cartlidge, Katrin (1961-2002)

A character actress of unusual intensity, Katrin Cartlidge moved seamlessly from early success on Channel 4 to far more challenging big-screen work with Mike Leigh and Lars Von Trier. Her shockingly early death robbed the British film industry of one of its most outspoken champions, who used her increasing fame as a vehicle for tireless promotion of unfashionable causes.

She was born in London on 15 May 1961, to Scottish father jailed for pacifist activities during World War II, and a mother from a family of Jewish refugees who had fled Nazi Germany. Cartlidge began her stage career as Jill Bennett's dresser before appearing in her own right at Riverside Studios, the Royal Court and the National Theatre. Television fame came on Channel 4's first night, when she appeared as troubled teenager Lucy Collins in Brookside (1982-2003), a part she played for a year before spending the rest of the decade primarily on stage.

Although she had already appeared in a handful of TV plays and the Comic Strip's second feature film Eat the Rich (d. Peter Richardson, 1987), her major post-Brookside breakthrough was in Mike Leigh's controversial Naked (1993), in which she played the sadomasochistic flatmate Sophie. It was a minor but memorable part, which Leigh rewarded by giving her one of the title roles in Career Girls (1997), in which she played the idealistic former student activist Hannah (affectedly stressing on the second syllable), a part that won her the Evening Standard Best Actress award. Her final role for Leigh was a tantalisingly brief cameo as a brothel madame in the uproarious Gilbert & Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy (UK/France, 1999).

But by then her international career had taken off. In 1994, she starred in Before the Rain (Macedonia/France/UK, d. Milcho Manchevski), which cast her as a woman torn between her English husband and Macedonian lover against a Bosnian war backdrop. At least as controversial as Naked for its sexual politics, Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves (Scandinavia/Germany/France, 1996) cast Cartlidge as its moral anchor, as she struggles to cope with her sister-in-law Bess (Emily Watson) becoming increasingly unhinged by grief, sexual obsession and religious fervour. Her first American film, Lodge Kerrigan's Claire Dolan (US, 1998) was often equally intense, this time with the focus firmly on Cartlidge herself in the lead role as a prostitute determined to straighten out her life and start a family after the death of her mother.

Her final big-screen role was in Danis Tanovic's viciously satirical Bosnian war drama No Man's Land (2001), in which her idealistic television journalist Jane Livingston locks horns with Simon Callow's complacent UN commander over an incident involving a landmine-related prank gone horribly wrong. She dominates the film's second half as its most recognisably human character, her reporting stifled at every stage by logistical problems, official obstruction and uncooperative interviewees.

The success of No Man's Land (which won a Best Foreign Film Oscar) would undoubtedly have pushed Cartlidge's career onto a new plane, but she died within a few months of its British release from complications arising from pneumonia and septicaemia. The following year, Lars Von Trier's Dogville and Emily Young's Kiss of Life were each dedicated to her memory.

Michael Brooke

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