‘Ginger and Rosa’ could be described as a coming of age story in more than one sense. It subtly portrays the emergence into adulthood of two young girls against the backdrop of a newly arrived atomic era. Ginger and Rosa (Elle Fanning and Alice Englert) are both born on the same day, perhaps at the exact moment, that the Americans drop the bomb on Nagasaki. Much of their lives are to be spent in the shadow of that cataclysmic event and the decades of anxiety and brinkmanship that follow.
The young ladies are almost supernaturally close, sisters in all but genetics. Their mothers give birth to them whilst lying next to each other and the girls grow up sharing the same fashions, tastes and secrets. Their nascent interest in boys coincides with the start of the 1960s, a time of increased sexual freedom; although of the pair it is Rosa who is the more promiscuous. Whilst Rosa is spiritual and hopes for a love to replace that denied to her by her father’s absence, Ginger lives in constant fear of an imminent Armageddon.
They attend a ban the bomb meeting together and Ginger grows more interested in protesting, egged on by her mother’s group of eccentric, politically conscious chums. Meanwhile, Rosa’s interest in fighting causes soon begins to wane. She becomes close to Ginger’s errant father Roland (Alessandro Nivola), somewhat complicating their friendship. Roland still suffers from the trauma of imprisonment as a conscientious objector during the war. His nihilistic attitude is coupled with a moral laxity which he regards as being part of his personal rebellion.
Roland’s interest in Rosa becomes less than fatherly and when the girls are invited onto his boat for the evening subsequent events threaten to shatter the bond between them. As if that was not bad enough, the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba looks set to transform Ginger’s worst fears into reality.
‘Ginger and Rosa’ is written and directed by Sally Potter, who is something of a cultural all-rounder. Her career has encompassed theatre, opera and dance as well as several acclaimed films. In 2004 she directed ‘Yes’ a film where the script was written entirely in iambic pentameter. It is fair to say that Potter’s output veers towards the artier side of cinema. The most successful component of ‘Ginger and Rosa’ is the overall look of the film. From the opening footage of the Nagasaki explosion, Potter ensures that the bomb casts a long shadow, not just over the lives of the characters, but on the visual aspects of the movie.
The skies are shown as being bright and featureless as if they are reflecting an atomic blast. The girls hang out in a run-down playground with a post-apocalyptic feel to it. Even the gorgeous ruddy locks that give Ginger her nickname flow from her head like a stream of burning flames. Much credit should go to the cinematographer Robbie Ryan who also brought a distinctive feel to the Andrea Arnold films ‘Red Road’ and ‘Fish Tank.’
Potter's script effectively recreates a period of political and sexual awakening, of anger at broken post-war promises and of hopes replaced with fears. There is an autobiographical note to the film as Potter herself grew up in a similarly liberalcultural milieu as Rosa – her father was a poet and an architect. She has also claimed to have shared the same worries about an impending doomsday.
The film’s historical setting is more novel than the actual storyline. Only last year, the movie ‘Albatross’ also dealt with a youthful female friendship potentially destroyed by paternal intervention. Some of the more intriguing characters in ‘Ginger and Rosa’ tend to pop up for all too brief amounts of time. One would have loved to know more about the gay couple played by Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall who, sharing the same forename, are amusingly referred to as ‘Mark 1’ and ‘Mark 2.’
Sally Potter has attracted a sterling cast but then she is rather highly regarded by the acting community. Elle Fanning and Alice Englert are both exemplary as the title characters. Ms Englert – the daughter of the noted director Jane Campion- makes her feature debut although there are no signs of inexperience, quite the opposite in fact. Best of all is Christina Hendricks as Natalie, Ginger’s mother. Natalie is a woman of ravishing beauty, not to mention her musical talents, who is somewhat imprisoned by her domestic environment.
For Hendricks this is a case of second time around with the Cuban Missile Crisis, having already been through it as Joan Harris in ‘Mad Men.’ For some actors it proves difficult to break away from a successful TV series and make it on the big screen. On this evidence, Hendricks certainly seems to have the ability – her English accent is spot on – and the presence to do so.
Anything directed by Sally Potter is worth a watch and not just because she is a remarkable female director working in what is still a male dominated profession. ‘Ginger and Rosa’ is slow moving but often quite stunning. Despite its potentially explosive subject matter it generally avoids the temptation for high drama until the closing scenes, preferring a quieter approach. If nothing else it tackles an era and a point of view that are not often allowed screen time.
Alan Diment takes a look at this new coming of age drama from director Sally Potter...