Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa opens in 1945 with a fascinating juxtaposition, namely that of birth and death at opposite ends of the world. In Japan, we see Hiroshima being decimated by the atomic bomb, which killed thousands of people. In London, we see two women simultaneously bringing new lives into the world, their daughters Africa, a.k.a. Ginger, and Rosa. The girls would grow up as inseparable best friends; we see them as little girls holding hands on a swing set, just as their mothers held hands while in the throes of labor. The story then flashes forward to 1962, at which point the Cold War was in full swing and the Cuban missile crisis scared millions with the threat of worldwide annihilation. There’s another juxtaposition at work, here; it’s a real possibility that these girls will die because of a nuclear holocaust, an event that marked the year they were born.
Now teenagers, we see Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) as individuals in the process of becoming. Initially, they’re as close as they ever were. They skip school, smoke cigarettes, hang out with boys, hitchhike to solitary locations, try on clothing, go to parties at night. They rebel against their mothers, who have settled into a life of ordinary domesticity. Rosa has felt ignored by her mother (Jodhi May) ever since her father left the picture. Ginger feels misunderstood by her mother (Christina Hendricks), who was forced to give up painting in order to become a housewife; Ginger knows – at this point in her life, at least – that she doesn’t want to end up like her mother, who gave birth to Ginger when she was only a teenager and is now a deeply unhappy woman.
As the film progresses, so too does the nuclear threat. It quickly becomes clear that, in spite of their lifelong friendship, Ginger and Rosa are maturing into incredibly different people. In other words, we watch as they become less and less compatible. Ginger, a burgeoning poet haunted by the possibility of humanity’s extinction, begins to affiliate herself with militant political movements aiming to disarm the world of nuclear weapons. This is encouraged by her bohemian father, Roland (Alessandro Nivola), who lives his life according to the principles of atheism, anarchy, autonomy, and pacifism, sociopolitical ideals that landed him in jail during the war. Of all the adults in her life, Ginger is the most like her father, who insists she call him by his first name.
In direct contrast, Rosa has a firm faith and no real interest in politics. She also has an affinity for boys, which I strongly believe has less to do with the emerging sexual revolution of the 1960s and more to do with the absence of her father. It should come as no surprise, then, that she begins having an affair with Roland, who has separated from his wife for the umpteenth time. Although it’s obvious, to Ginger especially, that this is merely the next step in Rosa’s quest for male attention, she deludes herself into believing her feelings for Roland are instinctually maternal; she sees him as an emotionally and spiritually broken man, and she’s convinced only she can fix him. Of course, she can no more fix an already married man than Ginger can save the world through protest.
Although the film accurately examines how incontrovertibly linked we are to the events of the world, regardless of whether or not we’re aware of it, its greatest accomplishment is depicting the turmoil of transitioning into adulthood. Ginger, the central character, is essentially being pulled in different directions by the adults in her life, despite her efforts to be an individual. Her parents, who are clearly not suited for each other, express their love for Ginger in very different, very confusing ways; her mother believes learning a few basic domestic skills are essential for everyday living, while her father believes that no one, not even his own daughter, should be beholden to rules imposed by people in positions of authority. Acting in part as a go-between is a family friend named Mark (Timothy Spall), who tries to make Ginger see that her mother isn’t as one-dimensional as she makes her out to be.
If there is a flaw in Ginger & Rosa, it would be Potter’s decision to include Mark’s American lover, also named Mark (Oliver Platt), and their mutual friend, an American poet named May Bella (Annette Bening), herself a social and political activist who encourages Ginger in her endeavors. It’s not that they’re badly developed characters; it’s that they appear infrequently and contribute almost nothing of value to the story. The film is at its best when the focus is the relationship between the title characters. We can see it coming apart at the seams. In one instance, it’s because of an irrevocable physical and emotional transgression. Mostly, however, it’s simply because they’re developing into different people. There’s always the hope of reconciliation, but for the time being, all that matters is survival.
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