Far from the swinging sixties, filmmaker Sally Potter’s depiction of a 1962 London is a far more sobering affair, with food and work scarce, tireless peace protestors, and the increasing threat of a Cuban Missile Crisis lingering in the city smog. It’s a tough time to be an adult, but seemingly even tougher for two teenage girls in Ginger & Rosa.
Elle Fanning stars as the first titular character, Ginger. Nicknamed as such for her (awfully dyed) rouged hair, she’s a fiery character all-round. 17 going on 30, the aspiring poet and leftie activist takes inspiration from the grim life both outside and at home with her bickering mother Natalie (Christina Hendricks) and step father Roland (Alessandro Nivola), a boisterous, but charming boho-academic and once imprisoned pacifist. Outside her turbulent domestic situation is where Ginger really lets loose, embracing nascent womanhood with best friend Rosa (Australian newcomer, Alice Engelt). They live in each other’s pockets; fleecing fags, shrinking jeans in the bath, attending ‘Ban the Bomb’ rallies and hitchhiking across rural England. With only her aloof mother at home, Rosa is the more assertive of the pair, hoping to speed through adolescence as quickly as possibly and meet her knight in shining armour. When Cupid strikes his bow in the most unlikely and disturbing of places, Ginger struggles with the realisation that they are not only growing up, but also growing apart.
Still revelling in her critically acclaimed adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando from 1992, Potter’s unique art films are so ornate and divisive that at best could be compared to a sumptuous renaissance painting, and at worst shunned as pretentious poppycock. Thankfully, Ginger & Rosa sees Potter toning down her highbrow inhibitions, telling the universal story of rebellious youth through Robbie Ryan’s charming, naturalistic cinematography. The nomadic period in the girls’ lives is also reflected in the expert use of music, mixing traditional bebop jazz from Charlie Parker with the jaunty Rock & Roll of Little Richard.
Despite these nice flourishes, Potter’s casting choices make certain scenes, and entire characters jarring and trite. Particularly hokey is Christina Hendricks, cast against type as the pinny wearing stay-at-home mother, a far cry from the buxom matriarch Joan in Mad Men. Elsewhere, fellow American Nivola lacks the magnetism needed to pull off a nascent father figure, doubling up as an irresistible sex symbol. Fortunately it’s not all that bad on the wings, with Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt providing some much needed comic relief as Ginger’s genteel godfathers Mark & Mark Two; with Annette Bening as their visiting American poet chum.
Despite some sweet moments, it’s often unclear what kind of story Potter is trying to tell. Starting as a small coming-of-age Cold War story, the tension escalates to an embellished and bungling finish.
All that said, there is one shining beacon of majesty in Ginger & Rosa though, and her name is Elle Fanning. The 14-year-old American, and younger sister of The Twilight Saga star Dakota, proves herself an effervescent screen presence, articulating the bulk of the drama while Engelt’s Rosa, whom is also impressive, strives to blur it. Not only does she handle the Queen’s English with great aplomb, Fanning has a quivering timbre in her voice that is both fragile, yet imperious, and totally representative of a typical teenage girl encroaching on womanhood. If only the performance had been in a different movie, she would have bagged up an Oscar nomination this year. Resembling an almost Meryl Streep-like grace and zealousness, something makes me think we’ll be seeing more excellent performances from her in the years to come.