Ginger & Rosa (UK 2012)


Making one little world an everywhere – Elle Fanning as Ginger

Sally Potter’s new film, Ginger & Rosa is drawing a very different response from critics who have found her artistic style previously inaccessible. It has drawn comparisons with Orlando, her towering adaptation (for an incredibly tight budget, even in 1992, of $4 million) or The Tango Lesson (1997), made with Potter at the central figure as a woman learning about her emotions as well as her dancing skill on an odyssey (‘away’ from the demands of writing and creating) to Paris and Buenos Aires. The sense of escape – the emotional joy of it in that film – could make us forget we are watching something written and created by Potter. Both films demonstrate Potter’s flair with crafting images of lyrical, romantic intensity – so arresting it could be easy to forget the emotional underpinning that music often provides in these and her other films. Even in ones that seem removed from her more mainstream narratives, there is a rhythm in repetition of action or, for example, in the deep musical voice of Celeste Laffont, who muses philosophically on female/feminist and capitalist states in both Thriller (1979) and The Gold Diggers (1983). A contemporary, and friend, of Derek Jarman and working through the politically-activist 1970s through the resistant 1980s, Potter has often been regarded as part of the British art cinema scene rather than a mainstream filmmaker.

Much has been made, therefore, of the mainstream sensibility of this film and foregrounding it as a departure for Potter. This oddly forgets The Man Who Cried which starred Christina Ricci in another coming-of-age drama, similarly focused on an isolated character – a refugee of a Russian pogrom on a quest to find her father (in America). Whilst this latter film followed a conventional picaresque narrative for its main character, including her romance with an uneducated but poetic Romany (played by Johnny Depp), Ginger & Rosa follows its main character through a particular crisis. It could be described as a family melodrama focused on Ginger’s emotional response to a changing relationship with her parents, resulting from their separation. However, set at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Potter (as writer) brings together the tension of the personal and the political – not only in Ginger’s own political awakening and turning away from home to realise the importance of world events but in the way in which politics is embedded and entwined in her emotional relationship with her father.  I am going to put the context to one side – wrongly I know, because the film animates that period of history and does so most effectively through the persistent sound of the news reports that permeate every private space. When I saw it, another cinemagoer spontaneously talked to me about how it had brought back that whole era really vividly for him. So, I’m turning my face away from the politics, to look at its personal, melodramatic form. Partly because I think Potter explores effectively how the political – truly believed in – can also be as much about personal loyalties and deep-rooted family feeling and this becomes an absorbing tension at the heart of this narrative – not least, importantly, because the playing of it by Elle Fanning and Alessandro Nivola is so incredibly moving. Not often can films let complicatedly good and bad figures remain just that – but Nivola and Potter succeed here. Fanning is drawing Oscar buzz for her performance, and the rawness of her emotions on screen (pretty much carrying a film at 13 years old) are incredible.  Alice Englert, as the apparently more experienced worldly-wise childhood friend, is as finely judged  in what has to be a less showy performance (to prevent the film becoming imbalanced in any way). Shot by Robbie Ryan, Andrea Arnold’s regular collaborator/cinematographer, the colour palette often adds the kind of melodramatic intensity and to express the interiority – I liked to think sometimes (as above) the walls were allowed to turn russet to reflect Ginger’s emotions as well as reflecting an idea of the world she was trying to save. Music, similarly, was actively used in the scenes (rather than remaining a directorial mood-inducing soundtrack) as arising from the characters’ need for expression or comfort  –where their human conversations avoided the confrontations that would force them to let go of the beliefs they needed to hang onto (political or personal).

Potter is used to directing stars (Cate Blanchett and John Turturro joined Ricci and Depp in The Man Who Cried and her innovative Rage – released via mobile phone webisodes in 2009 – included actors such as Judi Dench, Steve Buscemi and Jude Law).  She has a number in supporting roles here – Mad Men’s Christine Hendricks, Annette Bening, Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt. Certain scenes do struggle with the weight of ‘adult’ cross-currents and declarations, but the cast do support (rather than overwhelm) what is a really affecting – and to me as an adult female – true portrait of the kinds of intense friendships born in childhood that can hit the rapids towards adulthood. Its evocation of those unbalanced and intense female friendships was incredibly moving – and was a proper inheritor to earlier women’s pictures in which portraits of women’s relationships were not sketchily or patronisingly conceived. Potter’s films may sometimes issue strong intellectual challenges but in her films there is always a strong romantic consciousness and emotionality (such as in the iambic pentameter-driven Yes (2004)) that does not patronise or render complicated emotions tritely.  Satisfying cinema on many levels – no labels really required.



  1. Roy Stafford

    I think we are going to have a long debate about this film. I’ll try to start it off by saying that it certainly made me think a great deal about what kind of film it is. I don’t think it is ‘mainstream’ in any way – but that doesn’t mean that its appeal is confined to the typical specialised cinema audience. I agree on the emotional intensity of the visual style and Robby Ryan does a fantastic job in presenting Sally Potter’s ideas. I agree too that the music, cinematography and set design support a very interesting narrative about two 17 year-old girls and their close relationship. Intellectually, I can understand the argument Potter makes about the relationship between Ginger’s ‘internal world’ and the external world of politics and global conflict – but I’m not sure it works in practice.

    It’s probably heresy to say this, but I think that Elle Fanning was miscast. She is clearly a very talented young actor and she doesn’t do anything ‘wrong’, but she just seemed too young to me (i.e. she looks too young). Alice Englert looked absolutely right for the role and I was impressed by Allesandro Nivola. Christina Hendricks was the worst miscasting and I have to disagree with you about the acting generally. In a way the adult conversations reminded me of British independent films of the 1970s and 1980s (i.e. usually not very convincing, but it didn’t matter as the ideas were what counted). Either the script isn’t very good or Sally Potter isn’t sure what to do with her stars. It really would have been better to have had relative unknowns in the adult roles, apart from Nivola. It tended to smack of the need to interest a US distributor by including these ‘names’ in the cast. Perhaps I’m going over the top, but I nearly screamed aloud when Ginger, in 1962 (!), explained what the initials CND meant to these adults. Was this for the American audience? I can see that a younger UK audience might need this information but it could have been given in a more subtle manner.

    Melodrama? Hmm! Music, mise en scène, emotion, yes . . . but I think we need to discuss the social context for this bohemian group and that’s where a number of other questions come up.

    I did really like the film though! If I was going to study it in terms of the the time period, that strange interlude between the 1959 election victory for Macmillan and his resignation in 1963, I’d look at it alongside An Education, Nowhere Boy and a contemporary film, A Taste of Honey. I think by ‘triangulating’ (or whatever you do with four titles) in this way, we might reveal more about what kind of film Ginger & Rosa is. There are some interesting similarities and differences!

  2. nicklacey

    I think you’re a bit harsh Roy. I take your point about the ‘obviousness’ of what CND was in 1962 but isn’t that the sort of remark a 17 year old would make, assuming that parents know nothing about what’s going on now? Unusually for me, the casting of ‘known faces’ didn’t distract me in the supporting roles; I’m not sure why Timothy Spall’s character (a kindly upper class uncle type) didn’t annoy me but… it didn’t. I didn’t know Fanning was only 13 so wasn’t distracted by her in the role.

    I agree with both of the above regarding the direction and cinematography and it’s a film I’d happily watch again.

    • Roy Stafford

      Perhaps it marks a change in the way teenagers and their parents have been represented over time. In the 1960s I would argue that everyone knew of, if not everything about, the Peace movement and CND. The expectation was that every grammar school girl would read a newspaper or listen to/watch the news and would share at least some knowledge of national and international events. Perhaps it’s a comment on Ginger & Rosa’s closed and self-centred world, supporting Potter’s central point. I think that the problem with the script was that it just didn’t know whether to be a very expressionist piece or to be more fully rooted in some form of social realism.

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