London, 1962. Two teenage girls – Ginger and Rosa (Elle Fanning, Alice Englert) – play truant together, discuss religion, politics and hairstyles, and dream of lives bigger than their mothers' frustrated domesticity. But, as the Cold War meets the sexual revolution, and the threat of nuclear holocaust escalates, the lifelong friendship of the two girls is shattered – by the clash of desire and the determination to survive.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: In Ginger & Rosa, Sally Potter’s look back at the tail end of England’s 'angry young man’ phase, the writer-director indicates that young (and older) women of the era had more than a bit to be angry about too.
The stylised performances adds a contrived component to the trio’s little world
The film opens with archival, colour footage of an atomic bomb mushroom cloud and Hiroshima’s 1945 devastation, before jumping to London of the same year. In London, the two title characters are being born in hospital beds adjoined by their mother’s holding hands in painful, mid-partum solidarity. The two girls are similarly joined at the beginning of hipster London as the film leaps to 1962 when the world is on the cusp of the Cuban missile crisis. Rosa (Alice Englert) is caught between angst and Catholicism, but favours a snog over either option. Her best mate, Ginger (Elle Fanning), is a poetic soul enraptured by the bohemian ways of her father (Alessandro Nivola) and adolescently embarrassed by the counterforce of the conservative streak of her mother (Christina Hendricks).
Together, the girls smoke, kiss boys (with a practice on each other first), hitchhike and attend political meetings held by the nascent anti-nuclear movement. More often than not, Rosa is a step ahead of her bosom buddy Ginger. The former’s deflowering becomes the wedge that separates the two for evermore in a loss that marks the individuation of adulthood as opposed to the compulsive friendship of their childhood. While they both pay lip service to political upheaval, it’s clear Rosa is opting for sexual revolution as opposed to Ginger’s more difficult path of pushing for political change due to the threat of 'the bomb".
Intimate and undoubtedly semi-autobiographical (Potter was in fact born in 1949), the film boasts some robust performances, notably by Hendricks as Ginger’s mother and a burning, extended cameo by Annette Bening as an American political activist. However, the cast who act out the central drama (Fanning, Englert and Nivola) are required to punctuate their acting with stilted, glacial pauses. It’s not quite clear what effect Potter is actually striving for here. (Experimental filmmakers always leave themselves a back exit.) The stylised performances adds a contrived component to the trio’s little world, taking it out of the Teddy Boys-era reality that the film has been so well art-directed to attain.
The affectation also undermines the film’s later overtures toward forgiveness. But perhaps this is deliberate. While the actions of her best friend and father are difficult for Ginger, it is the act of trying to extricate herself from their secrecy (and their selfish modes of behaviour) that actually leads to traumatic meltdown for the (CGI-enhanced?) red-haired girl.
Certainly, Ginger is, ultimately, the only character in the film who attracts any real sympathy. And she gets the last word too"¦ but Ginger is a poet, a diarist and most important Potter’s stand-in. But the question is: can we really take Ginger’s final words at face value or is Potter making fun of the forgiving view she cannot bring herself to embrace?