Ginger and Rosa are inseparable. Their mothers give birth in the same London hospital room at the close of World War II, and the girls spend most of their waking hours together from the time they can walk. Ginger (Elle Fanning) is thoughtful and composed, while Rosa (Alice Englert) is something of a mess. Her father leaves the family early, and she develops an angry contrariness.
Ginger’s contrariness is rooted in the anti-nuke movement of 1962. She and Rosa attend a rally, partly to protest and partly to meet like-minded 17-year-old boys. Ginger is impressed with the people she meets and their commitment. Rosa seems to be going only because Ginger is.
It’s here that the two teens’ paths diverge. They both clash with their mothers—Christina Hendricks, struggling with the accent and an underdeveloped character, is Ginger’s mother; Jodhi May is Rosa’s—but Rosa begins seeking the approval of men in a way that Ginger doesn’t.
There’s one father still in the mix, and that’s Roland (Alessandro Nivola), Ginger’s dad. He’s a writer, was imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the war and is in love with himself above all else. When he compliments Ginger for taking initiative and getting involved in the anti-nuke movement, he’s really complimenting Roland. Naturally, Ginger worships him and fights with her mother.
There are other stories out there labeling Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa her most accessible film, and that’s true if you’re given to 1960s coming-of-age melodramas with tidy, yet ambiguous, endings. It may be more accessible than Orlando, but I’d gladly re-watch any film featuring Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth.
Accessibility aside, what Ginger & Rosa really has going for it is the performances. Fanning plays 17 here, but she’s younger in real life (still), and she masters the accent in a way her on-screen mother does not. She’s so good at channeling the inner turmoil of a difficult time in her personal life—and in history—that it’s hard to believe she’s younger than her character.
Fanning is the real thing. It will be interesting to see whether Hollywood tries to grind her down into its version of what a young woman on screen should be, or whether she’ll continue to turn up in movies that demand more than $10 and a bag of popcorn.
She’s nearly matched by Englert, who has the more traditional coming-of-age role: dour and angry. When Roland shows a special interest in Rosa, the tiny rift developing between Ginger and Rosa grows.
Ginger has plenty of support, including gay godfathers, both named Mark (Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall, both delightful), who appear to be openly gay at a time when being gay in England was still difficult (the Sexual Offences Act didn’t pass until 1967), though their characters feel emblematic of a country and planet changing faster than anything Ginger can control.
As Ginger’s personal life becomes more and more difficult—part of which is her fault for ignoring her father’s scoundrel nature and her mother’s decency—the plot’s wheels creak, and the side-by-side marches and homefront battles seem a little tidy and obvious. The movie’s penultimate scene, with the entire cast in one room shouting, would seem wholly absurd if it weren’t also acted so well.
Ultimately, though, Ginger & Rosa succeeds, and that’s a testament more to Potter’s direction, Fanning and Englert than it is to Potter’s screenplay, which has few mysteries or subtleties. Where Potter the writer hammers points home, Potter the director is content to let her actors find their moments. Stern looks and discontented sighs go a long way in here.
It’s those quieter moments that work so well. Take advantage of them before the summer movie season arrives and there’s nothing to watch but shit blowing up. At least it’s just emotions exploding in Ginger & Rosa.
GINGER & ROSA
Written and directed by Sally Potter
With Elle Fanning, Alice Englert and Christina Hendricks