Director: Sally Potter
Writer: Sally Potter
Stars: Elle Fanning, Alice Englert, Christina Hendricks, Alessandro Nivola
Ginger & Rosa takes place in 1962 London, when the Cold War held the world at a standstill. But the mood of the film is not as gloomy as the plotline and color palette would suggest. Actually, the film is more dull than gloomy.
G&R feels like an exposé or a series of photographs, something that should be seen in print rather than a full-length film. That being said, the consistency of the color scheme is impeccable: cool tones of blue, brown and forest green wash over every frame. The fashion and furniture blend in with their surrounding landscape. G&R has the aesthetic of Inside Llewyn Davis without the wit. But then again, the film is a melodrama and is definitely not directed by the Coen Bros.
G&R is written and directed by Sally Potter, an acclaimed English filmmaker and former choreographer who is known largely for her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Potter’s script is incredibly minimalistic and mostly consists of brief, pointed interactions between characters. The writing is technical and articulate. I enjoyed its quiet simplicity at first, though my appreciation eventually turned to frustration. Ginger is the main character yet she drives almost none of the narrative. In fact for the majority of the film, it feels like we hardly know her at all. The script tries to tell us who she is via the opinions of supporting characters. We are meant to believe that Ginger is a “radical” (this description is used several times by her parents and family friends) yet even her protests feel passive. Ginger is also a self-proclaimed poet, and many scenes feature the young author drafting poetry. Next to Rosa, the expression-less, rather apathetic best friend, we would hope that Ginger would stand out. But if not for Elle Fanning’s poignant performance, her character would have fallen flat.
G&R is in large part a coming-of-age drama, so themes of mortality and the teenage notion of forever are inherently embedded in its script. Ginger seems to understand all too well the fallacy of forever; she is wiser and more mature than Rosa, who seeks “everlasting love.” Ginger is the only character who is seriously concerned with potential oblivion and is sensitive to the instability of her immediate and global surroundings. Ginger’s father is emotionally unavailable and essentially abandons her, falling Lolita-style for her best friend. This betrayal is not unknown territory: American Beauty addresses the attraction between a young woman’s father and her best friend, but it is based more in fantasy than reality. American Beauty works because the characters are motivated by lust and imagination, whereas in G&R, the relationship between an older man and a young woman simply happens. The main conflict thus feels forced and unrealistic.
Unfortunately, the film focuses largely on girls’ interactions with men rather than their own friendship. While attention from men is part of many (straight) women’s teenage-hood and is one trope of the coming-of-age story, these repeated flirtations distract from the story rather than add to it. The girls get picked up by men at pubs and accept rides from strangers, actions that speak more to played-out, gendered roles than wild and reckless fun. I think the trailer’s promises of lighthearted adventure fall short here.
A little over an hour into the film, a shift occurs that saves the story. The slow burning pieces of narrative boil together to reach a climax—when Ginger breaks down and the father’s secret is finally revealed. Finally I see the director’s intention: G&R is about a family in crisis. The Cold War backdrop acts as a nice analogy for the instability of Ginger’s world. But ultimately she must face her emotions on the conflict at hand: the betrayal by her best friend and by her father. The threat of the bomb now feels less real than the family’s ultimate implosion.
If nothing else, Ginger & Rosa is an undeniably pretty film. I’m not suggesting you skip the first hour of the movie, although you may want to watch it on mute. (Save for the wonderful soundtrack, of course.)