Lovely and devastating, challenging yet worthwhile, Sally Potter‘s “Ginger & Rosa” may be the English filmmaker’s best since “Orlando,” and perhaps her most accessible to date. The intimate and sensual picture also features yet another terrific performance by 14-year-old Elle Fanning, who is quickly becoming the most compelling teenage actor working in movies today. But this time, as the lead, Fanning is transformative, heartbreakingly conveying the inner life of an adolescent with an almost eerily nuanced command of her craft.
A coming-of-age teen friendship tale set against the backdrop of Cold War nuclear anxiety and the burgeoning sexual revolution in mid-’60s London, “Ginger & Rosa” tackles the idea of bonds shattered by ideological differences and examines the sobering cost of the newfound intellectualism, which often came at the expense of proper nurturing and guidance.
In London in 1962, two teenage best friends, Ginger (Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert, the daughter of “The Piano” director Jane Campion) are inseparably joined at the hip. With London coming of age itself culturally and politically, the nuclear bomb weighs heavy on the minds of everyone, but especially the extra sensitive and thoughtful Ginger. But during this vibrant period for discovery, the girls awaken to ideas of pacifism, religion, gender, art, music and poetry while playing truant from school, smoking cigarettes and hoping to escape the dreary domestic prospects that their mothers are bound by.
A wonderfully characterisation-rich element of the film is Ginger’s relationship to her father Roland (Alessandro Nivola, in a superb turn). An intellectual imprisoned for his beliefs (a conscientious objector during the war), the period transforms the man into a philosophizer, a deep thinker and further, an unfaithful lothario. Like most teenage girls, Ginger adores her father, but the truth remains that he puts grand and lofty ideas of intellectual freedom and nonconformity above his family and his doting, unappreciated wife Natalie (Christina Hendricks). Ginger is enamored of the ardent and unapologetic beliefs that drive his life, but when she gets to experience the effects of them firsthand, they are uncompromisingly cruel and insensitive.
While Ginger and Rosa awaken to the world around them, the lifelong friends also begin to discover boys and their own sexuality, and this is where their friendship begins to fissure and their paths diverge from both a narrative and ideological perspective. The more precocious and mature Rosa becomes fascinated with owning her sexuality, exploring and playing with it like a new object. Whereas, awkward and more demure, the introspective Ginger focuses on poetry and her growing fears of nuclear escalation. She moves toward the field of the activist, while Rosa is less interested and soon starts to develop what appears to be an unhealthy fondness for Roland, newly separated from Natalie, and always open for a new experience no matter how taboo it may appear to some.
As their paths lead in opposite directions, Ginger and Rosa’s friendship is tested, and like the arms race building up around them threatens to, it eventually explodes into a brutal and desecrating betrayal. Also featuring Annette Bening, Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt and Jodhi May, “Ginger & Rosa” has a solid cast in support. They play friends of Natalie and Roland, but also serve as alternate parental models to the curious but confused and angst-filled Ginger.
Deliberately paced, the drama may be unhurried and somewhat supine for its 89-minute running time, but the picture is so invested in telling its story with such an emotionally honest, unsparing and vulnerable countenance, that the viewer’s patience does largely pay off, although it may leave some audiences feeling restless.
Being directed and written by the not-known-for-being-accessible Sally Potter, “Ginger & Rosa” may be too exploratory for mainstream audiences. If there’s a dealbreaker for audiences or commercially minded critics, it’s the fact that the narrative tends to grow unwieldy and wanders non-linearly from a coming-of-age story to something much more complex and wider (and no doubt autobiographical) about how the post-war generation’s social upheaval and radical thinking damaged the children of this era (of which Potter was clearly one).
But while it may not fit in any comfortable, easy, little box, there’s much to love about “Ginger & Rosa.” Expressively told, Potter is a master of documenting the rich emotional inner life of characters. Jubilant scenes with the girls meeting and hitchhiking with older boys are wonderfully vibrant and charged with an electric youthful energy you simply cannot bottle, yet the director gets as close as humanly possible to capturing that exuberant rush of blood to the head. Elsewhere the picture is sparse and minimal, but always with a thoughtful, examining gaze that illuminates the lives of these frustrated characters.
Apart from Fanning’s incredible childlike vulnerability, which is often just heartbreaking, Alessandro Nivola’s performance is also something to deeply admire. The oft-undervalued actor imbues grace and courage in an uncompromising character and achieves the rare feat of making vile and disgusting behavior simply a part of a complicated three-dimensional character, rather than allowing it to define him wholly. As Rosa, Alice Englert doesn’t have as much character stuff to chew on as Fanning, but the actress also puts in a commanding performance that points toward a bright future. But it’s Fanning who lingers in “Ginger & Rosa,” with picturing sealing the deal for the actress as a serious performer who is going to have a long and valued career in cinema. One assumes the teenage role short-list is led by her and the arguably more traditional Chloë Moretz from here on out.
Philosophically landing in a place where moral integrity and passion can exact enormous cruelty on a person’s life, Potter’s picture is clearly a very personal one, but its depiction of global and social destruction (or its potential) is still deeply humanistic and universal. Beautiful, yet dark and moving, unsparing, but told with a sympathetic eye, “Ginger & Rosa” is sometimes relentless in its examination of emotional pain, and as such may be a challenging picture for some audiences. But for those who give it a shot, they’ll be rewarded with a layered and rich little gem of a picture about life, love, and trying to find and understand one’s place in the world. [B+]
This is a slightly edited reprint of our review from the Telluride Film Festival.