Review of Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa

Reviewed by Denah A. Johnston

Ginger and Rosa (2012). United Kingdom, Denmark, Canada, and Croatia, 90 minutes. Written & Directed by Sally Potter. Starring: Elle Fanning, Alice Englert, Chrsitina Hendricks, and Alessandro Nivola.

Ginger and Rosa begins quietly, focused on a grainy, color-saturated image of the most horrifying thing in the world: an atom bomb exploding. Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) are born on the day the bomb drops on Hiroshima in 1945, their lives forever entwined in a frenzy of discovery for better or for worse.

A montage of their mothers supporting each other through mostly hard times and the quintessential image of young girls on a swing set holding hands. Fragments of childhood memory in a tumultuous time: postwar devastation and the height of the Cold War in swinging London. One of the first visually striking elements of this film come with the realization that nearly every shot, no matter the duration, is hand held. Quite unusual for a Potter film, this visceral vérité approach is demanded by the story and necessary to see the world through Ginger’s perspective as she fancies herself an adult but is not yet prepared to deal with the truth and consequences that responsibility demands. I find Potter’s submission of style in service to story a worthy sacrifice.

Sally Potter, whose most celebrated films are The Man Who Cried, The Tango Lesson, Yes, and Orlando, wrote and directed Ginger and Rosa. The film investigates the relationship of two best friends by combining coming of age drama, Ban the Bomb activism, and an array of family issues. Drawing from Potter’s own activist youth, the visual framing of the emotional depth of Ginger is of particular importance to this film and break away from a number of her aesthetic and thematic tendencies in previous work with a new mantra of direct storytelling. Featuring a wonderfully woven cast and shot in a mere five weeks, the attention to period detail, music, and visual style gently call on the lineage of British Kitchen Sink Dramas of the 1950s-60s.

Elle Fanning was cast as Ginger at the age of twelve and exhibits a deep realism and quiet intensity that is matched scene for scene by Alice Englert, Jane Campion’s daughter, as Rosa. New York Times critic A.O. Scott phrased it perfectly, “Ms. Fanning, who is younger than her character, shows a nearly Streepian mixture of poise, intensity and technical precision. It is frightening how good she is and hard to imagine anything she could not do.” The film was shot on the Arri Alexa digital camera, which Potter praises for its reproduction of skin tones and image quality. The images are so beautiful that one can forgive the digital transgressions of minor CGI use to remove pedestrian yet distracting marks of modernity such as satellite dishes captured shooting outside the tenements. In heightened Cold War fear that each day could be the last, the emotional realism and drama overpower such tell tale signs of modern film production. But ultimately these technical details melt away in relation to the high drama that builds through the film cooled from time to time by a masterfully assembled cool jazz soundtrack.

As we get an inside view of the bond between Ginger and Rosa viewers might relive days of their own wild youth— staying out past curfew, underage drinking, making out with strangers in alleyways— exploring the seemingly endless limits marked by parents, school, and society. Here the sublime camerawork by cinematographer Robbie Ryan plays an integral role. Though we see the world in 1962 through this surprisingly fluid hand-held camera, it is never once distracting. The camerawork only serves to bond us more to Ginger and her life, struggles, and joy. This element might surprise Potter fans who expect the more experimentally structured and poised art house fare of Orlando (1992) or the iambic pentameter of Yes (2004). Floating through highs and lows we cannot escape the emotional gravity of Ginger’s coming of age as a jazz-record-playing beatnik who writes poetry, and is raised by a pacifist father who was jailed as a conscientious objector during the war, and a mother who gave up painting to have her at the tender age of sixteen. It may sound as if too much is piling up in the narrative, but through clever craft and direct action, Potter evokes in her actors the very essence of all these things. Never once does a moment pass that seems unnecessary— even an extreme close-up held on Ginger’s face as a silent tear slowly falls forces you to experience her confusion at that moment.

Hints at a rift or gap between the friends who tell each other everything begin to show. On a day at the seaside Ginger discovers Rosa has a spiritual leaning, encouraging Ginger to pray to soothe her worry about the bomb, which has been heightened by the Cuban missile crisis. They sit in a sea of pews at church, taking in the smell, sight, and sound in a moment of quiet reflection. On the way home waiting in a bus shelter fear, love, and envy begin to appear on Ginger’s face when she begins to realize there is a larger gap in experience between her and Rosa. The incredible uses of extreme close-ups take advantage of Elle Fanning’s emotional depth and subtlety in her performance. When Rosa goes off with a boy she just bummed a cigarette from, the distance grows between them, and Ginger turns to a book of T.S. Eliot poetry in an effort to understand what is happening. “This is the way the world ends.”

The ever-present threat of the bomb in the narrative at first seems a bit much—perhaps overkill—but as the story unfolds it proves more than a mere metaphor, it stands as a real threat that could destroy everything. The allegory of the bomb is ever-present and always shifting. Living in a post-9/11 reality, this context might hit closer to home than it would have before. Potter delicately weaves a direct and painfully truthful look at the fallout one experiences when becoming an adult. When Potter was developing the script, the working title was Bomb. As we live in the world, the world also lives in us: secret lives, personal crises, moral, and ethical issues bleed out across time to craft an individual narrative. In Ginger and Rosa all of these things are implicit and imminent as the tension builds within Ginger coming to terms with life and with people, who act regardless of the impact on others or the consequences. A burgeoning activist, she attends several Ban the Bomb meetings and marches for the cause, even getting thrown in a patty wagon and into a jail cell, unbeknownst to her mother and father: a quintessential trial by fire.

The stark contrasts between bleak interior scenes and bright outdoor scenes further accentuate the distance between the struggles apparent and hidden in the characters. When Ginger meets Bella, a thinker and activist who escalates her words into action, thoughtfully and fiercely played by a shorthaired bespectacled Annette Benning, she finds reinforcement that her political and social interests are a worthy venture. “So I gather from your two godfathers here (a gorgeous couple charmingly played by Timony Spall and Oliver Platt) that you might be a militant like me. Good for you, Ginger!” In highly emotional scenes, such as the explosion between Ginger’s parents Natalie (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks) and Roland (Alessandro Nivola) in the kitchen, we witness a sadly ironic dissolution of the nuclear family. When the fluorescent overhead lights are turned on and the romantic candle light disappears, it is clear that a new reality is on the horizon for the crumbling family.

Ginger and Rosa is a film that will likely garner attention during the upcoming awards season, marking a new chapter for the reception of Potter’s work. In producing a more accessible narrative film, she eludes previous criticism of her work as impenetrable artifice. Listening to Potter speak about the development of this project, the long casting process, and her incredible experience working with her actors pushed this film into inspirational territory for me. In the collaborative process of filmmaking and later reflection upon each step, the embedded meaning of the work becomes that much more clear. Potter and her band of misfits deliver in a subtle way that builds scene by scene. Ginger and Rosa serves to remind us of the refreshing capabilities of passionately created cinema.

Struggling to discover the truth—what one values and is willing to fight for—is part of every great coming of age story, but in Ginger and Rosa the stakes seem especially high. We are reminded that life is messy and emotional fallout is imminent, we are survivors as long as we can make it through the explosions.

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