Private dramas unfold against the backdrop of broader historical terrors in Sally Potter’s absorbing coming-of-age drama Ginger & Rosa, set in London in 1962 as fears of nuclear war loom. For Ginger (Elle Fanning), the more central of the two eponymous teenage protagonists, the world—on both the micro and macro levels—is about to burst.
With her sixth fiction feature since The Gold Diggers (1983), an experimental gloss on Busby Berkeley, Potter too is breaking out with a new, straightforward style. Best-known for her lush, Tilda Swinton–starring 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending, time-traveling novel Orlando, the filmmaker here forgoes her earlier unconventional predilections for a simple, direct narrative. Her experimentation with the non-experimental is mostly successful, though sometimes Potter overcompensates by needlessly emphasizing already obvious points.
The connection between nuclear bombs and nuclear families, for example, is made quite literal in the film’s prologue: Opening with archival footage of an atomic mushroom cloud and the decimation of Hiroshima in 1945, the movie cuts to the birth of the title characters, both pushed out into the world by teenage mothers on adjacent hospital cots the same year as the bombing of the Japanese city. Best friends since they were seconds old, Ginger and Rosa (Alice Englert, seen earlier this year in Beautiful Creatures) have, 17 years later, blossomed into highly self-dramatizing adolescents, always decked out in turtlenecks, toggle coats, and other Beatnik-inspired ensembles. Ginger name-drops Simone de Beauvoir and proudly announces that she is going to be a poet. Rosa favors more carnal pleasures, such as snogging with boys while waiting for the bus. Their responses to the increasingly terrifying radio broadcasts about nuclear buildup also reflect their diverging beliefs: Ginger thinks they should protest; Rosa suggests they pray.
Yet despite their differences, the two girls share an insoluble bond forged by their disdain of their mothers. “Mothers are pathetic. They don’t believe in anything,” sneers Rosa, whose single mum, Anoushka (Jodhi May), cleans houses to support her large brood. Ginger’s ma, Natalie (Christina Hendricks), may have a bit more economic security than Anoushka, but she is often destabilized by the comings and goings of her writer-intellectual husband, Roland (Alessandro Nivola). Overweening and self-righteous, he’s both something of a role model for daughter Ginger and her frequent co-conspirator in humiliating Natalie. Espying her mother—who has sacrificed her own ambitions to be a painter for the drudgery of domesticity—as she softly, tearfully sings “The Man I Love” with an accordion strapped to her chest, Ginger is filled with pity and contempt. “I don’t want to be like you, so bugger off,” she hisses at Natalie.
These venomous outbursts typify Potter’s keen understanding of the most psychically violent developmental stage of an adolescent girl: her struggle to individuate from her mother. The ferocity of this love-hate dynamic is underscored even further by Fanning’s devastating performance. (Those who saw the young actress in Sofia Coppola’s 2010 film Somewhere might argue that she’s incapable of any other kind.) Fanning, who turns 15 next month, deepens her bright, anxious character with reserves of empathy—even, eventually, toward her eternal nemesis. “Was she always unhappy?” Ginger asks one of Natalie’s oldest friends, one half of a gay couple; both named Mark, the longtime companions are sweetly played by Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt. The Marks serve as sage advisers to Ginger, as does their visiting American friend, Bella (Annette Bening, perfect in a tiny role), a bespectacled, pigeon-toed writer who refuses to be parted from the satchel that contains her opus-in-progress. The teenager feels so at ease around this unconventional trio that she spontaneously cartwheels during a walk in the woods with them.
Soon Ginger learns that she has foes capable of far worse harm than her mother. A scandalous betrayal by Roland and Rosa—born of his narcissism and her desperation for attention—only heightens Ginger’s fears about the globe’s imminent destruction. As Roland and Rosa’s unseemly actions play out, Potter fills the script with an excess of on-the-nose dialogue. Overhearing too-intimate sounds, traumatized Ginger reads aloud the last stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” (“This is the way the world ends . . .”). “Haven’t you heard about the crisis?” Ginger incredulously asks Rosa, now sporting the hairdo and makeup of a Ronette, after being freaked out by a radio bulletin about . . . the Cuban missile crisis.
The film’s climactic scene, which brings together all the characters, major and minor, also suffers from clumsy pacing and blocking. The moment when Ginger is pushed to speak about what has been troubling her—”I can’t say it! I’ll explode if I say it!”—unflatteringly recalls the hysterics of a similar moment in Joseph Mankiewicz’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s overripe Suddenly, Last Summer (1959).
Yet in its closing minutes Potter restores the calmer observational tone and mood that distinguish much of Ginger & Rosa, providing a lovely summation of its main character’s age-appropriate contradictions. Sitting silently, Ginger reflects, somewhat grandiosely, on what awaits her as an adult in a poem about the future—verse that is rendered in the simple rhyming scheme of a child.