By Nancy Novick
From Romeo and Juliet to the Twilight saga, themes of first love–and the forces that thwart it–have attracted scores of filmmakers from around the world. But far fewer have depicted the non-sexual, yet no less passionate attachments many young women experience with one another. In her new film, Ginger and Rosa, writer and director Sally Potter turns our attention to one such relationship, set in London against the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis. Spirited poetry-writing Ginger (Elle Fanning) and lonely bad-girl Rosa, played by newcomer Alice Englert (who recalls the Canadian actress Ellen Page) have been friends almost since birth. Beautiful Ginger wants to save the world from nuclear annihilation, sexy Rosa just wants to find true love that will last forever. But the girls share just about everything else, including jokes, minor acts of rebellion, and contempt for their mothers; Rosa’s is a haggard cleaner whose husband has left her, Ginger’s has given up her painting to stay home and look after the house. It’s no wonder “they can’t keep their men” Rosa says.
The first hint that things may go seriously wrong shows up early on, during a scene in which Ginger’s father drives Rosa home after the girls spend a late night out. Although Ginger is along for the ride, we see Roland (a handsome free-thinking pacifist played by Alessandro Nivola) glancing with interest at Rosa’s image in his rearview mirror. Before long the girls are being driven apart by Ginger’s growing activism and Rosa’s conviction that she can “comfort” Roland, whose biggest problem seems to be his aversion to domestic life and marriage to Ginger’s needy, vulnerable mother played by a toned-down Christina Hendricks (looking soft and lovely and worn without the aggressive makeup and uplift of Mad Men’s Joan
The crisis comes when the inevitable seduction occurs and Rosa steps into the role of “mother” to Ginger. The pressure of keeping too many secrets and the bizarre exercise of playing house with her former best friend become too much for Ginger to bear.
While the film clearly focuses on Ginger’s personal crises—the end of her first great friendship, the betrayal of her father, her mother’s response to his latest affair, and the unsettling knowledge that humanity is in danger of destroying itself, Roland’s character is also particularly intriguing. As Mr. Nivola noted of his character in a Q and A session following the screening, “Everything he says is right, everything he does is wrong.” We may admire Roland’s intellect and his adherence to his principles, but we cannot admire him as he emotionally devastates the women who love him, one after another, in the name of those principles.
Both young women do a fine job in the title roles, with Ms. Fanning (pictured above at a Q&A following the movie) speaking in a creditable (to my American ear) British accent. And there’s little to fault in Ms. Potter’s script and sensitive direction. The only scene I found jarring was the actual seduction, which we overhear rather than see. As Ginger lies in bed listening to the moans and sighs of her friend, she recites lines from T.S. Eliot, “Not with a bang…” Apt as the lines may be, the recollection of poetry in that moment seems too far a stretch. More convincing is the moment after, when a crying Ginger covers her head to block out the sounds.
Ginger and Rosa also features the wonderful Annette Bening as Ella, the American activist who encourages, inspires, and frightens Rosa with images of a nuclear holocaust, and Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt as a gay couple who support and sympathize with Ginger and her mother.
Ginger and Rosa will be shown at Lincoln Center as part of the New York Film Festival at 9 pm on Tuesday, October 9 and Wednesday, October 10. The film will go into wide release in early 2013.
For a full schedule of the remaining screenings in the Festival go to http://www.filmlinc.com/nyff2012/schedule
Nancy Novick blogs about books, bookstores, and libraries at www.Stacked-NYC.com.