Sally Potter’s latest film, “Ginger and Rosa” (2012), tells the story of two seventeen-year-old girls living in London in 1962. The flame-haired Ginger and her bosom pal Rosa have been raised almost as sisters; seemingly joined-at-the-hip by virtue of their mothers’ friendship as much as their own. Best friends forever: they are united in wanting more from their lives than the domestic drudgery their mothers’ generation seems to represent. That is until Rosa’s affair with Ginger’s father Roland tears their cosy friendship apart and exposes how very different their views on the world actually are.
THE CAST INCLUDES:
- Elle Fanning as Ginger
- Alice Englert as Rosa
- Alessandro Nivola as Roland, Ginger’s father
- Annette Bening as May Bella
- Christina Hendricks as Natalie, Ginger’s mother
- Jodhi May as Anoushka, Rosa’s mother
Before we go any further, it should be noted that the threat of the bomb hangs over the lives of these two girls from the very beginning. Natalie (Christina Hendricks) and Anoushka (Jodhi May), their mothers, are shown in the very first scene giving birth to our two protagonists during an air raid in 1945. Fast forward some seventeen years and the Cuban Missile Crisis has given our two young heroines added impetus to live their lives fully, given that they now keenly feel the threat of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ hanging round their necks like a noose.
Roland, Ginger’s father, is the catalyst that pushes their teenage thoughts of truancy and rebellion into something much more emotionally scarring. Described as ‘a poet-warrior’, the iconoclastic Roland (Alessandro Nivola) wears his label as a conscientious objector like a medal round his sainted neck. The only man, or so he would have you believe, to stand up to the madness of the Second World War by being jailed for his pacifism, he encourages both girls to continually question the world around them and to live their lives to the very fullest.
Not that they need much encouraging. For this movie is all about that bittersweet transition between adolescence and adulthood and the wounds which mark this change. As a reaction against living under the perceived threat of nuclear war, Ginger and Rosa seek to push the boundaries as to what they can and can’t do: they play truant; they drink; they kiss boys; they stay out late; they take up causes (Catholicism and Roland for Rosa, CND and poetry for Ginger). As a result, they start to explore issues of love, death and religion and, in doing so, they attempt to discover who they really are.
In terms of trying to understand who these two central characters are ourselves, this movie should really be renamed “Ginger” as it is through her that all the events of the movie are filtered. Rosa, a very fiery character brilliantly played by Jane Campion’s daughter Alice Englert, is very much second fiddle here and her story and motivations are curtailed as a result, to the film’s detriment. Although both girls are highly impressionable, it is easy to see why the contemplative Ginger would be slightly in awe of the more adventurous Rosa despite the two characters being the same age.
As for Ginger herself, Elle Fanning is fantastic in the role – the more so given that she was only 13-14 years old when she played the part. Fanning has already been lauded quite rightly for her portrayal and I can completely concur with every bit of praise. She is virtually in every scene in the movie and has to contend with some powerfully emotional scenes – often in close up. The director, Sally Potter, apparently felt that Fanning possessed a “transparent” quality which marked her out for this role. This meant that, whatever emotions Potter asked Fanning to play, she invariably felt that she would find them shown played out on her face i.e. there was no artifice, there were no shutters, it was all there for the viewer to behold in plain sight. Hence, this is why the camera is often close up on Ginger’s face throughout the movie in order to catch these moments.
One scene in particular stands out in this regard. Ginger is having dinner with her father in his Bohemian ‘des-res’ when he gets up and starts nuzzling the neck of Rosa, who is cooking their meal. Although Ginger knows of Roland’s infidelity, this is the first time she has been confronted by it. The heartbreaking effect of this first public display of affection is powerfully conveyed when Ginger shares a tearful glance looking for help in the direction of Roland’s flatmate. He turns away, shame-faced, and walks out the room leaving Ginger alone with the two people she loves most in the world who have now let her down in the worst way.
It must be said that Alessandro Nivola is a revelation as the conceited Roland whose greatest relationship seems to be with himself. His character, as a result, is a deeply unsympathetic one and the villain of the piece, if there is one. However, he manages to still imbue him with a flawed humanity which I daresay was not there on the printed page. Less convincing is Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks as Ginger’s mother, Natalie. Her cut-glass English accent never quite rings true – in stark contrast to Elle Fanning’s more natural approach – and leaves Hendricks’ performance looking rather stiff and mannered. This proves a major sticking point when her character is presented as the wronged woman. Though I was clearly meant to, I just could not feel sorry for her.
Of the rest of the starry cast, Annette Bening is a standout as the bolshie May Bella who accompanies and encourages Ginger on her CND marches and demonstrations. However, this begs the question as to why she is used so sparingly in such a minor role. Similarly, Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall have little to do other than wring their hands as family friends watching the disintegration of Ginger’s family. Spall also delivers the most chilling, faux-compassionate ‘man in a knitted garment’ performance since Robin William’s “It’s not your fault” speech from “Good Will Hunting”. Ultimately, the presence of such starry names in this very intimate drama proves unnecessarily distracting and undermines the verisimilitude of what they are trying to achieve.
That being said, the film looks wonderful. The cinematography by Robbie Ryan is like watching beautifully framed picture postcards throughout while the editing by Anders Refn is well-judged and fast-paced throughout. Yet, despite this, harsher critics have labelled the film as “too left wing”, pretentious, ponderous and full of bad poetry. I went in expecting all of this and was pleasantly surprised to find none of these criticisms were true. It’s difficult to say but possibly Sally Potter’s previous arthouse outings, including films like “Orlando” (1992) and “The Tango Lesson” (1997), have coloured some journalists’ opinion of this new film.
Yet, judging “Ginger & Rosa” purely on its own merits, it is clear that Potter has produced a beautiful-looking, genuinely emotionally-compelling story of one teenager’s very painful growing pains. There are no moments of pretension that I could see, only sparse moments when Ginger briefly uses poetry to show her inner thoughts and feelings. While the poetry may not always be the best (whose teenage efforts ever are?) it is not intrusive. What is more confusing is why Potter felt it was necessary given that Elle Fanning’s ‘transparent’ performance already allowed the audience to let us know how she was feeling. Perhaps poetry was there to give Ginger’s character a much-needed outlet. Perhaps it is there to give Ginger a connection as an artist with her father. Indeed, perhaps poetry or filmmaking (or art generally) is an outlet for Sally Potter herself as “Ginger and Rosa” seems to draw heavily from Potter’s own experience of adolescence.
It is too tempting to see the parallels between the two and believe that Ginger actually is Potter as a young girl. If you start to think this way then you will invariably spend the whole movie, like I did, wondering how much of the movie is based in truth. In the end, this could have proved a major stumbling block for my own enjoyment of the movie. Indeed, in “Ginger & Rosa”, the London of 1962, like the two girl’s friendship itself, does seem a little too idealised and rose-tinted when some ‘kitchen sink drama’ reality would have greatly assisted instead. Sadly, the camera often lingers in most scenes not on the characters but on iconic images of the 1960s: the jukebox, the teddy boys, the quaint English pubs, the typewriters, the girlie comic books, the roll neck sweaters. It dances dangerously close to TV’s “Heartbeat” for my liking in this regard. Thankfully, the central performances pull it back from the edge of the precipice.
By way of conclusion, this movie is not flawless. Though put together beautifully, the end film is not as good as it thinks it is or aspired to be. It is let down by its inclusion of starry names for no discernible reason and its seemingly contrived nature. At no point did I think “It must have been like this”. Only when it came to depicting the emotional life of the central characters did it become real. And that is thanks, in no small part, to the outstanding performances of its leading ladies.
IN SHORT: A beautiful-shot ‘coming-of-age’ tale with a star-making performance from Elle Fanning.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Most definitely worth a look
What did you think of the movie? Rate it yourself below.
Watch the trailer here: