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'Ginger & Rosa': All's Fair In Love And Cold War

Catherine Green |
March 25, 2013 | 12:05 p.m. PDT

Editor-in-Chief

 

Alice Englert and Elle Fanning star in Sally Potter's coming-of-age film. (MovieWeb.com)
Alice Englert and Elle Fanning star in Sally Potter's coming-of-age film. (MovieWeb.com)
Facing change as a moody teenage girl is plenty dramatic on its own.

But the talented cast of "Ginger & Rosa" subtly merge this internal angst with international tumult to create an authentic narrative of unsteady, often lonely self-discovery.

Sixties-era London provides a dreary, dismantled setting for Ginger and Rosa (Elle Fanning and Alice Englert, respectively), both 16 and beset with the customary teenage frustrations.

They are friends in the truest sense: Ginger defends Rosa when she overhears her parents gossiping, and when Ginger declares she wants to be a poet, Rosa says encouragingly, “I thought you already were.” Their living-room dramas — bickering parents, fretting over how to dress for social acceptance, navigating the uncharted territory of dry-humping unsuitable young men — are heightened by the looming Cold War threat of nuclear destruction. Ginger’s ensuing paranoia that the world could end at any moment becomes a crutch as she deals with the horrors of her own personal crisis. 

Much of this upheaval revolves around her shifting friendship with Rosa, who becomes more of a plot device than titular character. “My memory of having best friends at that age is that it’s major,” director Sally Potter told TimeOut London. “They’re serious, profound relationships.” 

But 16 years appears to be the shelf life for the girls’ friendship. At first, they dip their toes together into the anti-war movement, attending meetings in dimly lit church basements. Their interests begin to diverge, and Ginger is soon flirting alone with the radical movement. Its members are easily dismissed, excluding the leader whose dark curls and wild eyes elicit giggles and experiments with eyeliner from our protagonist. The pacifist cause is primarily a backdrop for Ginger’s personal growth. Despite ideological dialogue, Potter doesn’t seem concerned with confirming or altering the audience’s convictions on conflict.

Standout performances by familiar faces make it hard to disagree with Ginger and her fellow conscientious objectors. Annette Bening is American dissenter Bella, who gives the film’s depiction of the crusade some gravitas as she gently pushes Ginger to further embed. Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt’s characters, family friends Mark and Mark Two, are less inclined toward activism. Their value comes while mediating the tense intimate landscape between Rosa and Ginger’s families. 

Just 12 years old when she first met director Potter, Fanning was almost passed over for the part of Ginger. But she’s aged herself nicely here, filling Ginger’s oversized sweaters and pea coats to swing gracefully between the full-blown melodramatics and immaturity (her intensity in a fast-paced hand-clapping game with Rosa is especially endearing) which occupy girls’ lives between the ages of 14 and 23. 

Her behavior is often to the chagrin of mother Natalie, played by Christina Hendricks, whose role as maternal harpy recalls almost every dislikeable trait of "Mad Men" secretary Joan, for whom Hendricks is best known. But even at her shrillest, Natalie doesn’t seem to deserve the cad she’s married. 

Roland, played by Alessandro Nivola, is handsome and passionate to a fault. He demands not to be reminded of his fatherly status, and eventually we see how deeply that lacking responsibility wounds. But through most of the movie, Roland’s rejection of authority is part of the allure of London’s damp counterculture. In his beatnik world and the wind-whipped night drives while Mom fumes at home, Ginger and Rosa see opportunity to advance their back alley debauchery. 

At first, we prefer his approach to the world — like Ginger, we want to be included in his hip enclave. But gradually we find ourselves disapproving of what that cool perspective means to a household, siding with shrewish Natalie in their crumbling marriage. Roland is partly responsible for a major betrayal of Ginger’s trust halfway through the story. The reluctant patriarch’s actions here are so thoughtless, his handling of the aftermath so petulant and self-centered, that he becomes wholly unsympathetic by film’s end. 

His despicable behavior is entwined with that of Rosa. Englert is believable as a teenager dabbling in cigarettes and bad decisions, and her character’s contrived transformation is spot-on: a young girl trying desperately to fit in with the grownups. It might have been nice to see more of that metamorphosis, but feeling it through Ginger’s increasingly distant exchanges with her is effective. The less we see of Rosa, the more we identify with Ginger as she strikes out on her own.

Ginger’s loneliness is made palpable by the chill of London’s fog throughout Potter’s film. Also key are the jaunty ‘60s pop songs she flips on to distract herself from fear of the unknown and abandonment by family and friends. These are among the small, wonderful elements Potter throws in to create a full experience of Ginger’s world. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan uses vastness and close quarters to high impact, starting with a compelling series of parallel shots to tell the short story of Ginger and Rosa’s beginnings. Ryan closes the film with a different sort of side-by-side: Ginger and her dad, seated inside a stoic hospital waiting room, while her voiceover reads a poem in progress considering the future of her shattered best-friendship. We know how the Cold War ends. The fate of Ginger and Rosa’s formative alliance, on the other hand, is a fraying loose thread.

Reach Editor-in-Chief Catherine Green here. Follow her here.



 

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