Best known as one of Mike Leigh's '90s repertory of actors, Katrin Cartlidge also made her intense, versatile talent felt in several key European films of the 1990s and early 2000s. Her sterling career was cut short, however, when she passed away in 2002 at the age of 41.
Born to an orphaned British father and German-Jewish refugee mother, Cartlidge was raised in a bohemian London household. With her ability to read hampered by undiagnosed dyslexia, she was relegated to remedial classes at school, souring her on academics. More inspired by her trips to see avant-garde theater, Cartlidge began to audition for plays in her teens. Although without formal training, she joined the Royal Court Youth Theatre, and served as an apprentice in London and Edinburgh's fringe theater. Despite making her official London stage debut at 18, Cartlidge supported herself during her late teens by working as an art school model and as a dresser at London's Royal Court Theater. She was finally able to earn her living by acting when she landed a role on Channel 4's popular soap opera Brookside in 1982. During her six years on the show, she also became a regular stage presence at the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Court Theatre. Even after she moved to films, Cartlidge continued to work in theater, including appearing off-Broadway in the 2001 British import Mnemonic.
Cartlidge first caught Leigh's eye with her multi-role performance in a 1985 Royal National Theatre play. He offered Cartlidge work on some TV ads five years later, but she turned him down. The director eventually cast her in his 1993 film Naked. Although she had made her movie debut in Channel 4's Sacred Hearts in 1984, it was Naked that officially launched her into the international art cinema stratosphere. Through Leigh's famously long and rigorous pre-production process, Cartlidge created wry, druggie, Goth Sophie, a sexual free spirit who seems to be an apt carnal match for David Thewlis' drifter Johnny before she falls victim to the masculine sadism embodied by Thewlis and Greg Cruttwell's cruel yuppie. A brutal and sometimes mordantly hilarious examination of contemporary anomie, the film earned accolades at the Cannes Film Festival, while Cartlidge garnered the award for European Actress of the Year and the European Press Best Actress prize. She followed Naked with a starring role in Milcho Manchevski's drama Before the Rain (1994); featuring Cartlidge as a photo editor torn between her London husband and her Macedonian photographer lover, the movie examined the conflicts plaguing the newly independent republics formed after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and became the first Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee from Macedonia. After appearing in several more projects, including the imaginative Antoine de Saint-Exupéry biopic Saint-Ex (1996), Cartlidge solidified her international status with a supporting role in Lars von Trier's landmark drama of faith and self-sacrifice, Breaking the Waves (1996). In a change of pace from her prior uninhibited characters, the actress portrayed a repressed, uptight sister-in-law bent on protecting Emily Watson's Bess from her sexually degrading, ill-fated quest to cure her paralyzed husband.
Cartlidge returned to the Leigh orbit to co-star with Lynda Steadman in the eponymous Career Girls (1997). Centering on two '80s college roommates who have an uneasy '90s reunion, the movie showcased Cartlidge's range and sharp humor as her Hannah evolves from a jittery, angry student seeking random wisdom from the Brontë sisters into a sleek, aggressive professional with a shade of vulnerable self-awareness. In the wake of Career Girls, Cartlidge noted that she would not be going to Hollywood because, "My breasts are too small, I have no collagen in my lips, and my eyebrows are too thick." Instead, the actress ventured into American independent films as part of the ensemble trolling Manhattan in Hi-Life (1998) and as the title character in Lodge Kerrigan's second feature, Claire Dolan (1998). Despite qualms over Claire Dolan's unvarnished view of sexuality, Cartlidge's unstinting turn as an immigrant prostitute garnered her London's Evening Standard Best Actress award. After taking on period roles with Michael Cacoyannis' film version of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard in 1999 and a cameo role in Leigh's Topsy-Turvy the same year, Cartlidge went back to American indie films with Kathryn Bigelow's mystery-drama The Weight of Water (2000). Cartlidge then came as close to Hollywood filmmaking as she would ever get as one of Jack the Ripper's victims in Allen and Albert Hughes' visually flamboyant From Hell (2001). She received more attention, however, for Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land (2001), a film she had shot simultaneously. Exploring the same politically charged terrain as Before the Rain, Cartlidge's tough war correspondent was a key part of Tanovic's satiric dissection of the futile Bosnia-Serbia conflict. Nominated for Best Foreign Film, No Man's Land beat out the popular Amélie (2001) to become the first Bosnian film to win an Oscar.