Ginger is concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In fact, concerned rather puts it mildly. Her worry and distress over what she sees as an inevitable nuclear holocaust becomes all-consuming as Ginger & Rosa progresses. She simply must do something to avert the great cataclysm hurtling towards us, and is maddened that the grown-ups around her just can’t see it. Did I say ‘grown-ups’? Oh yes, Ginger is 17 years old.
With a shock of long red hair Ginger, played by Elle Fanning, is best friends with – hey, you guessed it! – Rosa (Alice Englert). They’ve been inseparable since birth. But now (now being 1962) the tumultuous times both cultural and familial are set to test their friendship like nothing before. Ginger’s parents are separating. Her mother Natalie (Christina Hendricks) feels unappreciated*, whilst her quasi-bohemian father Roland (Alessandro Nivola) refuses to set boundaries on idealistic grounds.
Ginger tends towards her father’s way of thinking, enjoying the freedoms and the air of creative experimentation his lifestyle affords. She wants to be a poet, and an activist, something Roland whole-heartedly commends. A telling trait of their relationship is that Roland refuses to be called ‘dad’, eschewing the notion that he should have any responsibility for her thoughts or actions.
Ginger is not blind to Roland’s indiscretions, yet she forgives them as a loving daughter does. But when they conflict with and intrude on her precious friendship with Rosa, things start coming undone for her. It is no coincidence that as the relationships in her life collide, Ginger’s obsession with nuclear disarmament only grows stronger. Unable to face an apocalypse close to home, she adjusts her gaze to a global scale.
Ginger & Rosa is directed by Sally Potter, who has a sizeable catalogue of work under her belt that I’m afraid I have not previously dipped in to. This film, which she also wrote, is confidently directed and if nothing else is always beautiful to look at. Potter evokes 60s England in rusted browns and cold whites and greys. There is an autumnal sense of neglect and decay in a lot of the locations, especially when Ginger is in Roland’s company. It is understated but exquisitely rendered with the kind of quiet confidence that comes from experience.
She has also brought together a gift of a cast. Neither Fanning nor Hendricks are of British origin, yet not only do both manage to sound the part, they also convince whole-heartedly as mother and daughter. Hendricks’ Natalie is stern but loving toward Ginger. It’s a thankless role, but Hendricks evokes our sympathies nonetheless, whilst Fanning proves – yet again – that she is one of the most gifted young actresses of her generation.
Why cast Americans in important English roles in a small English film? Because you can, I’d imagine. And when they’re this good, who cares? You cast the best you can. Potter has done just that. Supporting players are also of great note. Annette Benning, Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall are equally terrific as a group of intellectuals acting as parents to Ginger in the absence of a coherent family structure.
So why the relatively underwhelming score below? Well, for all of the beauty in the framing and for all the fine performances, there’s little getting away from Ginger & Rosa’s kitchen-sink leanings. Whilst the canvas of the Cuban missile crisis is an interesting one, this is at heart a small-scale family melodrama which, especially in its final stretch, hits all the cliché notes it can find. After a strong beginning in which silences and simple tableaux images tell so much, Potter’s script gets bogged down in wordy arguments and histrionics.
The film gets a lot of things right however, not least the lightning-in-a-bottle idealism of youth. Fanning is a joy to watch, and when Ginger gets passionate about something it’s hard not to think back to similar sentiments at a similar age. Because of this we are with her through the troubles ahead, meaning that we squirm and shudder when she does, and share her sense of loss and betrayal.
*How could you not appreciate Christina Hendricks? How?