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.