Sally Potter (The Tango Lesson) has always been an ambitious filmmaker. Right from her 1992 breakthrough film, the acclaimed, time-jumping, gender-bending adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Potter has attempted to capture the dazzling complexity of human life with its interwoven layers of sexuality, politics and social mores within the structures of a traditional narrative movie. Not all of her films managed to synthesize these elements successfully, but her latest, Ginger & Rosa, weaves them together beautifully.
On August 6, 1945, the atomic bomb is dropped on Japan and two girls are born at a London hospital. Seventeen years later, The Beatles are still just an obscure band in Liverpool but the sparks of cultural change are becoming visible as England strains to break free from the drab conformity and scarcity that smothered the nation since the end of World War II. Ginger and Rosa are now inseparable friends, although they come from very different backgrounds. Ginger’s parents are bohemian artists, while Rosa’s mother is a Polish immigrant cleaning woman. The two teens share every vivid emotion as they take their first thrilling steps into an adult world that percolates with the new freedoms of the 1960s. Potter plunges us deep into both the passionate excitement and unsettling fears of Ginger’s rapidly expanding life. Together, the two girls dive into the heady pleasures of music, sex and political activism. While Ginger loves exploring these exhilarating new opportunities with her lifelong friend Rosa, she also discovers her universe could be on disturbingly shaky ground. When the Cuban Missile Crisis starts looming, Ginger decides to join the burgeoning “Ban the Bomb” movement. However, far more intimate threats start to emerge closer to home when her parents’ marriage begins to fall apart and she senses an attraction starting to develop between Rosa and Ginger’s darkly handsome father.
Potter’s impressionistic imagery wonderfully evokes Ginger’s intense inner life while also drawing a richly detailed portrait of the complex social realities that shape and constrain her existence. Potter is ably assisted by an amazing ensemble cast highlighted by Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) as Ginger’s mother who struggles with the double standards of the pre-feminist counterculture, Alessandro Nivola as Ginger’s charming but undependable father, as well as Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt and Annette Bening as family friends who will do anything to keep Ginger from spinning out of control. However, the film is truly carried by the two young actresses who play Rosa and Ginger. Alice Englert (Beautiful Creatures) vividly captures Rosa’s rebelliousness and desperate need for love. And Elle Fanning (We Bought a Zoo, Super 8, Babel, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), making a triumphant leap into an adult role, gives a brilliant performance that allows us to feel every raw emotion rippling under Ginger’s porcelain skin.
In Ginger & Rosa, Potter has created a powerful film that is deeply rooted in a very specific place and time, but the universal truths she reveals are eternally timely.