I watched Sally Potter’s portrait of youthful idealism, which screened in the Official Competition at the 56th London Film Festival, before going on nationwide theatrical release. This review was originally published by The Quietus on October 15 2012.
Bombs, babies, boys – they’re all part of the same thing. In Ginger & Rosa, writer-director Sally Potter attempts to remind us that ‘The Personal is Political’, and takes us back to one of the crucibles for that mantra: London, 1962.
In her seventh feature Potter (best known for Orlando, starring Tilda Swinton) attempts to tell two different stories at once, while showing how tightly they are bound together. In her own words: “The most intimate parts of our lives and the very huge part of global experience are totally interrelated. We are part of everything, and everything is part of us.” It’s an idea that’s hammered home in the opening sequence, as period footage of the first atom bomb falling on Hiroshima is intercut with the coinciding births of two babies in a starch-sheeted London hospital. Cut to sixteen years later, and the screaming babies – the eponymous Ginger and Rosa – have developed into black polo-necked teenagers. The same nuclear force that decimated two Japanese cities over a decade earlier is now threatening to obliterate the entire planet, while the beginnings of the sexual revolution are stirring.
Born on the same day, Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) have been inseparable ever since, and much of the film is a celluloid love letter to the kind of friendship that exists exclusively between adolescents, before the rest of the world pokes its nose in and messes the whole thing up. The girls part their hair the same way, share the same first cigarette, make their first forays into heavy petting in the same alley, and shrink their jeans in the same bath. But as they grow up, they also start to grow apart. Horrified by the reports of impending atomic annihilation, Ginger responds by writing (bad) poetry by night and going to ‘Ban the Bomb’ meetings by day. In contrast, Rosa chooses to leave it all in the hands of God and starts going to church, in addition to having a fringe cut, and applying yet more kohl.
Not only at the beginning, but in almost every scene, Potter is at pains to show how the protagonists’ private lives are permeated by the wider issues of the day – such as when, reading from a teen magazine, Rosa informs Ginger that a girl’s most treasured possession should be her bubbly personality. Ginger asks, “Do you think that Simone de Beauvoir has a bubbly personality?” to which Rosa replies, “It says here that’s what boys like.” “Oh,” says Ginger. The exchange neatly tries to illustrate how ideas of ‘womanhood’ were in flux in the early 1960s. The fact that Ginger’s identically monikered godfathers, Mark (Timothy Spall) and Mark Two (Oliver Platt) have a radical feminist, Bella (Annette Bening), staying with them, also provides ample opportunity for awkwardly abbreviated, kitchen table discussions of current affairs. It’s Bella who challenges Ginger’s handsome, tortured intellectual father Roland (Alessandro Nivola) when he claims that the heart must be obeyed above all societal rules and conventions – something he learned through being a conscientious objector during the War. “How fucking convenient,” she deadpans.
Unfortunately, while all of the political points made are worthy, they are not explored in nearly enough depth to render them as urgent and interesting as they deserve to be. This isn’t helped by occasionally clunky dialogue, which is in turn compounded by some aggravatingly unconvincing English accents. Then again, the much-discussed performance of Elle Fanning (sister of Dakota) as Ginger is undeniably impressive. Just thirteen when shooting began, she manages to bring a sense of youthful sincerity to the part she plays. The camera focuses on her a great deal – all wide, blinking eyes – and most of the movie is shot from her perspective, to the extent that Rosa’s characterisation feels sketchy and unfinished. The latter’s religious obsession, for instance, is signalled by her purchase of some plastic rosary beads, but very little else.
Ginger & Rosa often oversimplifies complex ideas, and at times steers dangerously close to melodrama – especially near the end, when a sort of proto-intervention takes place with regard to two of the characters’ relationship. The theatrical quality of it all is emphasised by the stagelike locations: bare white rooms, rubble-framed playing grounds, etc.
In spite of the stark settings, the film is visually rich. Director of photography Robbie Ryan has helped to create a distinct, stylised vision of early ’60s London, full of attractively deep-hued cinematography. In keeping with the current vogue for detailed, ‘authentic’, fashion-conscious renderings of past eras, the clothes and decor play an important role. Think Mad Men, whose Christina Hendricks feels somewhat miscast here as Ginger’s mother Natalie. Clearly, a lot of love and care has gone into the costume design. However, what with all the rosy cheeks, chunky knits and cold hands clasping enamel mugs, it does bear a regrettable resemblance to the Toast autumn/winter catalogue.
In contrast to its dramatic beginning, Ginger & Rosa ends on a quiet, reflective note. Ginger drafts a poem-letter to Rosa, in which she writes: “You dream of everlasting love, but not me. What matters is that we’ll live.” That sentiment, at least, is real – and, five decades on from the Second Wave, surprisingly rarely expressed by the heroines of today’s mainstream movies.