In perhaps the most excessive metaphor in cinema this year, the threat of nuclear holocaust has been used to represent the disintegration of a lifelong friendship between two teenage girls. While losing a close friend can seem like the end of the world at such a difficult age, it may be deemed over the top to stress it quite so much as Ginger & Rosa does.
Around the same time as the bombing of Hiroshima, the mothers of the titular teens bond as they go into simultaneous labours in a London hospital. Their girls naturally grow up the best of friends. Ginger (Elle Fanning, red-haired and just about English) is intelligent but angsty; Rosa (newcomer Alice Englert) is self-serving and over-confident. Together they blow off school to meet boys, attend anti-bomb protests and discuss religion and their place in the world. As Rosa develops faster as a young woman, Ginger develops more intellectually, encouraged by her lefty academic dad – the girls soon find themselves drifting far apart.
Sally Potter, the visually talented director of Orlando, has written a simple drama that struggles to fill its 90-minute running time. The first half of the film is pleasantly padded with Ginger and Rosa’s expeditions; kissing boys at bus stops, hitching lifts with dangerous strangers, trying out new fashions of the ’60s. But once the girls, particularly Ginger, become involved in the anti-nuclear movement the film slows down dramatically, and becomes a repetitive slog on its journey towards the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ginger’s panic and terror at the potential apocalypse, and fear of facing it without her increasingly distant friend, are not enough to hang half a film on. The subplot of the end of her parents’ marriage also resolves itself more-or-less halfway through – there’s a terrific short film in here somewhere, but it’s hardly feature material.
So while it’s finely made, Ginger & Rosa is anything but a satisfying film. A little into the second half a betrayal occurs so enormous that it is simply preposterous that these two “friends” would ever speak to one another again. No amount of brave faces put on by the characters can change how awkward and implausible the story becomes. Ginger’s increasing despondency at all aspects of her life and the world she lives in become almost too much to take; you don’t know if you want to hold her or give her a good shaking!
Fanning gives an affecting performance, and is interestingly playing a character two or three years her senior, and believably so. Her natural sweetness makes the pain she suffers hard to bear, and she evokes the idealism of the era with wide-eyed wonder and tear-stained cheeks. Englert meanwhile captures the contradiction of a teenager who is simultaneously woman and child, wielding a newfound sexuality that is as confusing to everyone around her as it is to herself. As Ginger’s father, Alessandro Nivola (another American actor) does his best to humanise a decidedly despicable role, but it’s too much for him – he remains a self-righteous womaniser who only takes pride in his daughter when she says things he believes in. As distracting as her physics-defying cleavage is Christina Hendricks’s godawful attempt at an English accent. The Mad Men star is more than able to hold her own as Ginger’s beleaguered mother, but her strained attempts at capturing English vowel sounds take away from an otherwise fine performance. Elsewhere, Tim Spall and Oliver Platt are adorable as Ginger’s gay godfathers. Annette Bening also shows up.
Potter and her cinematographer Robbie Ryan (who shot last year’s Wuthering Heights) have captured a natural-looking recreation of early-’60s London, and a penchant for close-ups helps sell the performances of the actors even as the drama dwindles. The production design team deserve special praise for selling the era so well.
But despite all the craft that has gone into this film, there is no escaping the fact that there is not enough story to keep it buoyant, and what story there is is little new. Very little is resolved at the end, and a poem read by Fanning in voiceover is not enough to bring you out of the movie feeling you experienced anything more than a pretty, meandering dream of a fascinating time, slightly dumbed down.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)