Red hair and tears
Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa is a movie that’s both ambitious and narrow. It primarily focuses on the quite limited lives, momentous only to them, of two teenage girls. But Potter chooses to stage her dual, feminine coming-of-age story in the England in 1962 for a reason. It’s self-consciously a moment of transition — on the cusp between the tail end of the Fifties, when the Brits were still struggling and haunted by the War, and the full-on Swinging Sixties, with their war protests, miniskirts, and Beatlemania. Can the vivid and luminously photographed story — whose nice handheld camerawork (by Andrea Arnold dp Robbie Ryan), earth colors, and intense closeups are a pleasure to look at — bear the weight of social commentary? Not so well, it turns out. Despite the distinctive visuals, nice (if inexplicable) jazz music, and accomplished acting, Ginger & Rosa is both claustrophobic and sappy. Its point that radical thinkers can make unreliable husbands and fathers is made in a trite and obvious way. Its constant harping on peace marches, nuclear terror, and the Cuban Missile Crisis hardly provides a rounded sense of the period. And it’s a most peculiar movie about schoolgirls that never shows them really looking at boys, listening to pop music, or even going to school. Is all this what’s meant by “auteur” — a filmmaker who’s willful and blind? Ginger & Rosa is a stylish visual poem, pretty and very personal, but also very limited.
After a while the eyes of Ginger (the young American actress Elle Fanning, blond hair dyed scarlet) seem to run with tears in nearly every scene. And for good reason. Her father, Roland (Alessandro Nivola, another Yank playing Brit), a pacifist professor formerly jailed for war resistance, is not so moral in his private life. He is mean to her mother Natalie (Christina Hendricks, the super-busty Joan of “Mad Men”) and then leaves her, and gets Ginger’s best friend Rosa pregnant. (Rosa is played by Alice Englert, the beautiful daughter of Jane Campion, but doesn’t make much of an impression). Ginger, a redhead like her mother, joins a youth nuclear disarmament group . She also wants to be a poet; she reads T.S. Eliot. When Roland is having sex with Rosa she recites from The Hollow Men, “This is the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” Or maybe with both? No pun intended, one assumes, but it’s an awkward moment.
Perhaps the self-centeredness of the girls is realistic for their age, but it further narrows the film’s scope. Roland is a potentially more interesting character. He is noble, but an ass, and Nivola plays him sympathetically, though he still winds up seeming thoroughly despicable. He glows in the false light of Ginger’s need for a father and the sublimated sexuality of Rosa’s “admiration” of him. Roland conveniently has a boat on which the girlfriend and the father can get it on. Protest marches and meetings exist for the girls to be impressed by a vibrant young radical student leader (Andrew Hawley). Ginger is sure the world is about to end — because she thinks so. An American leftist lady her father knows, Bella (Annette Benning, wasted and her character’s role undefined) points out she has said the world as they know it “might” end, not that it “will” end.
There are a couple of other characters, Ginger’s gay-couple godparents Mark and Mark (Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall). Platt plants a chaste kiss on Spall’s forehead to indicate their relationship. In the film’s rather sketchy structure, Mark and Mark hover nearby at moments of crisis to expand the movie’s sense of a non-traditional family. When Roland starts sleeping with Rosa things get a bit too non-traditional, more like borderline illegal and almost incestuous. But again this being all about a girl’s self-centeredness, the main point is that this relationship upsets Ginger. For once Rosa has struck out on her own. Most of these people are silly and superficial, and even when they take a valid stand, they do it in a self-centered way. If this is a feminist film, it doesn’t make its case very well — though the willfulness recalls some of the feminism of the Seventies.
Ginger & Rosa, 90min., debuted at Telluride and played at Toronto and also in the 50th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was screened for this review Oct. 8; it comes to the London Film Festival Oct. 13, and releases in the UK Oct. 19, 2012.
Director: Sally Potter
Stars: Christina Hendricks, Elle Fanning, Annette Bening
Runtime: 90 mins
Country: UK, Denmark, Canada, Croatia