The most notable thing about Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa is Elle Fanning’s physical performance. Her depiction of internalised pain, betrayal and confusion is completely captivating and at times, not easy to watch. But the script by director Sally Potter, which lays out an emotional and intellectual coming of age story set in 1962, is frequently cringe-worthy. It means that on most occasions when Fanning is required to speak, you can forgive yourself for rolling your eyes, not just because of her lines, but her oscillating accent which takes us to New Zealand and back. But were she to perform this in silence, you’d get a far superior film to the one presented here.
The script, particularly the dialogue, for this final edit can’t make up its mind about what to foreground. It seems to set up a story about two girls struggling to understand what it is to be a woman and be relevant in the world they live in, all the more interesting because of the period. To Rosa (Alice Englert), it’s why her mother has been abandoned by her father to raise her family on her own, while Ginger (Fanning) is learning a little slower why her mother is so desperately unhappy. She chooses to focus her attentions on nuclear disarmament, becoming swept up in the constant impending doom she feels.
But rather than missiles and bombs, it turns out this feeling is in large part down to her father (Alessandro Nivolli, perfect in this role) who, after Rosa sends him an intimate letter, begins an affair with his daughter’s best friend. Meanwhile, his wife (Christina Hendricks – terrible accent, poor characterisation) becomes a common picture of frustration and heartache while her pacifist, academic husband screws who he wants and takes her for granted.
Were Hendricks to do a better job of communicating this frustration in a less cartoon-like way, and were the script to give her a chance at being a more subtle about it, we might have a superbly focused look at the intergenerational part of women’s liberation. But this isn’t foregrounded and instead bluntly punctates Ginger’s understanding of the Cuban missile crises and nuclear weaponry which is presented in a pseudo-intellectual way.
We know Ginger keeps abreast of the pundits and philosophers, we know she’s angry and scared and trying to make a difference. But between the overt discussion of pacifism vs war in the decades after Hitler’s defeat, there’s so much more which is tragically ignored. The place of America on the global stage is largely forgotten as is the relationship between activists like Ginger’s friends and the wider population. Beyond the incidents of violence depicted between protesters and police, how were people like Ginger viewed by everyone? Was she aware of this? Potter doesn’t seem too fussed and fair enough. She prefers to look at Ginger’s internal struggle with her father and what his actions mean to a girl rapidly approaching womanhood.
While there is a lot to hold your attention during this film, particularly Elle Fanning, this typically arthouse director is trying to create something more accessible and mainstream, and she goes a little too far. It’s easy to applaud her simple storytelling but it doesn’t make this film stand out. Fanning on the other hand totally carries Ginger & Rosa and she’ll get due attention for that.