In Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa, two girls are linked by disaster at birth and have a hard time dodging it during their lives. As the film begins, the 17-year-olds are wrapped around each other like young kittens looking for a warm place to sleep. But soon enough, even joyful experiences (political activism, young love) lead to frustration and rage.
The setting is 1962, London. It’s a grey place, barely rebuilt after the Second World War: people keep their coats on indoors because the heating is no good. Here Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) find solace in one another and in jazz records. These bohemians have been best friends since childhood. Their mothers gave birth in adjoining hospital beds just as an atomic bomb was blasting Hiroshima off the planet’s surface. As the film juxtaposes the mushroom cloud and its aftermath with the mothers screaming in childbirth, we get the idea that the girls are born into a world of destruction.
Next seen as teenagers running through vacant fields and down city streets, Ginger and Rosa are all laughter and held hands, their long hair gusting in the breeze. They inhabit a relentlessly musical film, filled with symphonic colors courtesy of cinematographer Robbie Ryan, responsible for the gritty magical realism of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights. Much of the energy is filtered through Ginger’s worried expression and her brilliant red hair, leaving Rosa, with hunted eyes and a criminal’s skulk, shunted into the background almost from the start.
Ginger’s sense of self is inscribed in her colorful language as well. When her mother, Natalie (Christina Hendricks) demands to know where she’s been all night, she answers, “Roving about, being free.” Ginger wants to follow her father Roland (Alessandro Nivola), a writer, teacher, and avowed pacifist who has nothing but contempt for any rule that might constrain him from doing exactly what he wants when he wants it. As the chummy friend-dad who’s duly impressed when his daughter gets involved with the Ban the Bomb movement, Roland appears to be an appealing role model. He’s brave, committed, and idealistic, and oh yes, not above sleeping with his students or, eventually, Rosa. In a scene that might have been comical were it not so devastating, Roland denies that he’s done anything wrong, equating his going to jail during the war (as a conscientious objector) with having an affair with his daughter’s best friend.
Blinded by his own supposed virtues, Roland’s too obvious villainy weakens the film’s already thin drama. There’s little to resolve in the film but for Ginger to come to the same realization that the audience has reached long before. In the meantime, Potter tracks Ginger’s unevenly successful attempts to spread her wings. She announces that she will be a poet, attends political meetings, and rails against the prospect of a nuclear holocaust. Like any teenager with a heart so wide open, she’s due for a crushing letdown. And while her infatuation with saving the world is just as doomed as Rosa’s fling with Roland, they both serve a purpose for Ginger & Rosa, keeping adult life at bay.
Lucky for the film, Fanning incarnates Ginger’s naïve idealism with a fiery and resonant honesty. Because of her, when the wandering plots finally smash together in a good old-fashioned explosion of recrimination and finger pointing, the thinness of Potter’s conceit doesn’t sink the film. The thematic focus on destruction and rebirth is never quite plotted out. Secondary characters, like an American activist (Annette Bening) and Ginger’s gay godfathers (Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall, both superb) are introduced just long enough for their vibrancy to make you miss their subsequent absence. There is a beautiful film here, with a rich understanding of the apocalyptic concerns of adolescence, but it’s only visible in pieces.