Once upon a time, there were two girls, one fair and one dark. Born on the same day, they were close as close can be: ironing each other’s hair, wearing each other’s clothes, sharing cigarettes and dreams of the future – a future over which the threat of the Cuban missile crisis hangs. There’s also growing up, which is both a dream and a threat, as the girls determine not to live their mothers’ lives but get caught in the confines of what it was in 1962 (and still is?) to be a heterosexual woman: the expectation of finding your happily ever after in the regard of a man, even if it means breaking up with your best friend.
Sally Potter’s new film Ginger and Rosa explodes the fairy tale many of us still tell ourselves through so many books, films, songs and conversations. Her vision of 1962 London may be fifty shades of postwar grey – as if the ash cloud of the bombing of Hiroshima, seen in the film’s first seconds, were still falling over everything – but, in its brilliant flashes of colour, the film promises that what’s to come for its young protagonists is not the myth of free love happily-ever-after.
Ginger’s blazing red hair, together with a blazing performance from Elle Fanning, connects her to the fiery furnace of the bomb as well as to the warming blaze of a cigarette tip: she’s the fulcrum of the film, an explosive and compelling presence whether whispering her words in voiceover or waiting silently in prison after being arrested at a march.
Fans of Potter’s adaptation of Orlando will revel in her tender creation of Ginger’s sensibility: in her sense of connection to the natural world, her sparky, outspoken behaviour and her unspoken longing for Rosa
Robbi Ryan, also the cinematographer on Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, is known for his beautifully textured, almost tactile close-ups of characters and the world around them. Here, he brings that close attention, illuminated by his skill with natural light, to Potter’s gorgeously widescreen vision of a young woman’s becoming. Fans of Potter’s adaptation of Orlando will revel in her tender creation of Ginger’s sensibility: in her sense of connection to the natural world, her sparky, outspoken behaviour and her unspoken longing for Rosa (Alice Englert). A nascent poet and feminist (who prefers Simone de Beauvoir to Girl magazine), she’s one of the most passionate, engaging and alive teenage girls to grace the screen. She is a close cousin to Termeh in Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. Like her, Ginger has to choose not only between her separating parents – Nat, a painter who gave up her art to become a young mother, and Roland, a conscientious objector and activist professor who likes the attention of young women – but, more fundamentally,between two ways of living.
Elle Fanning as Ginger in Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa, photo Nicola Dove
She and Rosa regard their mothers as “pathetic,” tied to childcare and housework, although Nat, played by Christina Hendricks with characteristic spitfire directness, gives as good as she gets. Both girls idealise Roland and you can see why: Alessandro Nivola gives a nuanced performance as the charismatic espouser of “autonomous thought” who exercises his autonomy by encouraging Rosa’s feelings for him and asking Ginger to lie for them. His intellectual and physical freedom inspires Ginger in her writing and to become an activist, joining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
It’s activism and poetry that get her through the betrayal (she feels) of both Roland and Rosa. In one of the film’s most tender and heart-breaking scenes, Ginger whispers the famous final lines of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ to herself to distract from the sounds of Roland and Rosa having sex:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Poetic puns on the bangs and whimpers ongoing in the bed next door blur into a more complex cascade of resonances, an elegant layering of the dual apocalypse Ginger faces in the film: the end of the world, and the end of her world as her parents and friendship wrench apart. This entwining culminates in a tensely dramatic scene in which Ginger reveals Roland’s secret to Nat.
The scene – like the film itself – is enlarged, both dramatically and texturally, by the presence of Ginger’s godfather Mark and his partner Mark II’s friend Bella, an American poet who shows Ginger another way is possible. Bella, a “militant” activist and feminist, may be my favourite minor character ever. Annette Bening plays her with such conviction, precision, and pleasure, never stealing her scenes but commanding them, anchoring them, even as she and the two Marks function as kind of Greek chorus, testing Ginger’s ideas and giving her a place to speak.
The tropes of riding in cars with bad boys or shrinking your jeans in the bath are familiar – but the film always takes the familiar in an unfamiliar direction as we follow Ginger’s eye and experience
Ginger and Rosa is full of such pleasures: gestures, moments, ideas, words, exchanges that engage heart and mind and body, as the characters themselves are engaged. Choosing a protagonist who feels so much, with the exquisite self-conscious awareness of artistic adolescence, Potter opens the film to the viewer and opens the viewer’s memory and skin. Yes, the tropes of riding in cars with bad boys or shrinking your jeans in the bath (like the trope of pursuing an affair with a handsome older man) are familiar – but the film always takes the familiar in an unfamiliar direction as we follow Ginger’s eye and experience. Whether it’s her shy gazes at Rosa making up in the mirror, her hitchhiking safely or her outflung arm grasping frozen grass as Kennedy prepares the world for nuclear war on the radio, Ginger gives us the specificity of her world and we feel with her.
Through her actions and perceptions, the film also frames the narrative differently: Ginger’s revelation of the affair is followed by the classic slap as Rosa confronts her mother Anoushka (Jodhi May), but the attention of the scene shifts away from the melodrama to Ginger’s rapprochement with Nat. The film ends not with a bang – although the missile threat persists – but with a whisper, as Ginger (in voiceover) reads a poem she has written that is, she tells Roland, about the future. There’s no promise of ‘happily ever after’ in this future, but the very idea that Ginger imagines and desires a future, despite the threats of nuclear war and patriarchal conformity, provides a resolution as fragile, tough, beautiful and bracing as a handful of snow, earth, and grass.
Sophie Mayer is the author of The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love, and of two poetry collections, Her Various Scalpels and The Private Parts of Girls. Her current project, with English PEN, is Poems for Pussy Riot