Ginger and Rosa is a subdued film in its story-telling style and cinematography. The England of 1962 apparently had little sunshine and what there was of it was filtered through fog and dreary lives filled alternately with fear of the bomb and post-war numbness. People here have accepted their lot, however grudgingly, and it feels like most are unlikely to climb out of the muck that sucks at them.
The film starts in 1945, with the bombing of Hiroshima followed by a bird’s eye view of two young women in a London hospital. Labor pain was mushrooming for the roaring red-headed Natalie, and the brunette Anoushka reached her hand out from the next bed to comfort her. Women’s hands, girls’ hands open the film as we watch the brunette and redheaded children holding hands as they grow up.
|Christina Hendricks as Natalie (c) 2012 A24 Film.|
The new mothers of 1945 become the exhausted mothers of teenage girls in 1962. Without words, we see Natalie (Christina Hendricks) and husband Roland (Alessandro Nivola) in a dark if homey scene with young daughter Ginger (Elle Fanning); in contrast, we see young Rosa (Alice Englert) looking out the window as her father leaves the family.
Ginger and Rosa is the story of two teenage girls going through their rites of passage, exploring politics and religion, sex and passion, and discovering trust and betrayal. Natalie and Anoushka’s daughters are the closest of friends. Ginger and Rosa are inseparable, and, like all 16-year-old girls in every era, they question everything. They experiment, explore, play hooky, practice kissing, sneak out at night, do all sorts of foolish things (hitchhiking to the beach, learning to smoke, getting in cars with strange men). Rosa is a slim and pretty brunette, her crucifix clearly displayed on her chest even as she tries on clothing to look more grown-up.
Ginger has no chance of looking grown-up — tall and slim she may be, but she has a child’s face, a child’s innocence, a child’s heart that fears and breaks. She asks her questions of the world in her poetry and wonders if she’s going to live to the next day because talk of the Bomb on the radio is non-stop. Governments threaten to retaliate, always assuming someone else will launch their nuclear armaments first. It’s the Cold War and the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Annihilation appears imminent, and apocalyptic self destruction weighs heavily on many, especially Ginger. Ginger leads Rosa to meetings where a young man tries to rally those seeking an alternate to immolation by the Bomb. This activism becomes Ginger’s lifeblood — and escape.
|Ginger and Rosa at a Ban the Bomb rally. (c) 2012 A24 Film.|
While Ginger’s father Roland still lives with the family, he doesn’t play by the rules (as he proudly pronounces later), including the rules of marriage. He has young students, and just as he preferred Natalie when she was a teenager, so he clearly prefers girls younger than himself and therefore in awe of him. Roland is a pacifist writer and professor who was jailed for his conscientious objector status during the War which still hovers over everyone’s lives. Also in this vaguely left-wing community is Ginger’s godfather Mark (Timothy Spall), who also conscientiously objected during the War but chose to drive an ambulance and take part rather than enjoy his righteous sacrifice in a jail cell like Roland. There’s also Mark 2, Mark’s American partner (Oliver Platt). These gentlemen live in a much nicer flat than their friends, and sitting with them one might believe that everything can be solved over a nice cup of tea. They also have an American friend, Bella (played with a frosty intellect by Annette Bening). These three encourage young Ginger to explore, to talk, to learn. It is when she is separated from Bella at a sit-in against the Bomb that Ginger is arrested, refuses to speak as she sits alone in a jail cell (she’s clearly a child, what were the police thinking?) that things come to a head.
|Ginger with her godfather Mark (Spall), Bella (Bening) and Mark 2 (Platt). (c) 2012 A24 Film.|
After enough arguments, eventually Roland moves out of the household, and not long thereafter, the husband/wife fight is reflected in a mother/daughter confrontation. The outcome is the same, and Ginger moves into a dingy spare room at the flat of Roland’s friend. It’s a cluttered storage room with paper thin walls, through which Ginger will eventually hear more than she can bear.
|Nivola as Roland rowing Fanning and Englert||(c) 2012 A24 Film|
Although Ginger and Rosa still see quite a lot of one another, they grow apart as their duo becomes a trio with Roland (who refuses to be called “dad”). The three go sailing together. Rosa is clearly developing a crush on this handsome, smooth older man. Ginger looks on with consternation, not understanding her friend’s lack of interest in those things they once did passionately together, and takes a while to recognize that Rosa is infatuated with Roland. As I said earlier, Roland doesn’t play by any rules.
Sally Potter draws with a fine point pen, pencils the shadings, setting the scene for these girls to live on the screen. Ms. Potter’s attention to detail both as a writer and director brings us directly into the lives of these best friends — Rosa clutches her crucifix and wants to pray against the Bomb, while Ginger wants to march against it. Rosa chooses to make out with boys at a bus stop while Ginger writes poetry. Rosa suddenly starts wearing eyeliner, making Ginger appear even younger. And yet, she still shares the liner with Ginger, who just doesn’t look the same in it.
|Alice Englert as Rosa and Elle Fanning as Ginger. (c) 2012 A24 Film.|
Elle Fanning as Ginger and Alice Englert as Rosa work beautifully together, opposites who fit each curve of the other. It is a splendid cast, with Alessandro Nivola’s handsome Roland a shallow narcissist who has his good points, Mr. Spall and Mr. Platt as warm and loving godfathers as anyone would wish to have. Annette Bening's chilly exterior is belied by her clear affection for Ginger. Jodhi May is sad and drawn as Anoushka, the bereft mother of Rosa. Christina Hendricks has some nice moments but isn’t quite as believable as the others. Accents are uneven (even Ms.Bening’s American accent is odd and she’s American) but that rarely detracts. Ms. Englert is very interesting as Rosa, even though the story’s clearly about Ginger and told from Ginger’s point of view. Ms. Fanning, of course, is magical, heart-breaking, adorable. When Ginger finally breaks down, her emotion is raw and honest, the truth pouring from her not to inflict pain but to share what’s been inflicted more subtly on her.
The music supervisor for the film was Amy Ashworth, and she has compiled a moody playlist for the time, with jazz ranging from Basie to Bechet to Bird and Brubeck to Monk. The mostly smoky jazz steps aside for the occasional early rock and roll. The music is often played on a small turntable, then made most personal when Natalie sits alone in the dark by the fire, playing on her accordion and singing “The Man I Love.” (OK, rather obvious, but sweet and truthful. We women do things like that when the man we love breaks our heart.) So far I see no indication that a CD of the soundtrack is planned for release, but I hope it will be.
Ms. Potter and her panoply of producers brought together a fabulous group of artists who provided fine results in the production design by Carlos Conti, cinematography by Robbie Ryan, and film editing by Anders Refn.
The film is not perfect. It starts in a leisurely fashion, and we are mere observers of the 1962 Britain Ms. Potter recalls. Ginger and Rosa sometimes dips from leisurely into slow, and takes a while to engage the audience. It is Ms. Fanning and Ms. Englert who draw us into Ginger and Rosa’s world of hope and fear, love and despair. Maybe even forgiveness.
Although the film opens with a mushroom cloud, there are no gunfights, no fighter planes, no video games. Ginger and Rosa draws us quietly into Cold War Britain and reminds us that the good old days were just as difficult as today.