Thursday 25 October 2012

London Film Festival: Ginger and Rosa (w&d Sally Potter)

The films I saw at the LFF are already beginning to fade out of my noddle, like ghostly images of some antediluvian past, so I'd better try to scratch down my last few memories of them before they drain out of the holes provided.

I was very impressed with Sally Potter when we saw her a couple of years ago at the slightly overcooked 'interactive première' of Rage at the BFI, so Ginger and Rosa was a film I was really looking forward to.

It's the story of two adolescent girls taking their first troubled steps into adulthood in 1962 London, under the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis and what seems to be certain and impending nuclear obliteration. The film even opens with a little overture of footage from the devastated city of Hiroshima.

The girls' status as a double act is established from the start, as their mothers give birth simultaneously in 1945. And while they're still inseparable on the cusp of womanhood, there are signs of a rift. While Rosa (Alice Englert) is more assertive and exploratory in her relationships with boys, Ginger (Elle Fanning) is altogether more thoughtful and concerned.

The girls' intense relationship is put under further strain when Rosa drifts into a sexual relationship with Ginger's "cool" academic dad, Roland (Alessandro Nivola).

Roland's grand statements about individuality and free thinking sound impressive, but at heart he's clearly a dick; I was nicely reassured when the cinema hooted with derisive laughter at Ginger's earnest revelation that he always cries while listening to Schubert on his yacht.

Despite having been imprisoned during the war as a conscientious objector, Rowland's plummy rejection of 'normality' and 'mindless obedience' seems little more than a basis for him to mess around on boats and shag his daughter's friend. He can afford to break 'all the rules', safe in the knowledge that his wife Natalie (Christina Hendricks) will be there to pick up the pieces.

But while we could easily dismiss Roland as a self-regarding mouthpiece for pretentious claptrap, there's a more serious argument that the trendy and academic upbringing - programming, even - he has imposed on Ginger has left her undeveloped emotionally and unsupported. Her emotional confusion and fear of nuclear annihilation compound each other, sending her to the verge of breakdown.

The film is shot through the lens of Robbie Ryan, who was also the cinematographer on Andrea Arnold's buffeting, visceral Wuthering Heights, and I can't think of a recent performance as photogenic as that of Fanning; the enduring image of the film is her hurt, pale little face peering out from her mane of red hair. Her heartrending performance is particularly noteworthy given that she was only 14 at the time of the shoot (despite playing a 16-year-old).

Some of the supporting cast seem a little underemployed. It's always a pleasure to see Christina Hendricks (complete with the Now Obligatory accordion-playing scene), but it's hard to swallow – even in the early scenes – that she'd ever be downtrodden. Similarly Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt don't get much to do as cuddly gay family friends Mark and Mark, while Annette Bening has an even more functional cameo as their psychoanalytical house guest.

As engaging as Ginger and Rosa is, I think its sense of universality is diminished a bit by its focus on a very particular upper-middle-class academic/bohemian milieu. This is where seeing more of Rosa would help; it's clearly suggested that her home life is a bit more down at heel than Ginger's, and Jodhi May is criminally underused as her tense single mother.

However, that's a bit of a churlish quibble. The film works best in the way it makes the political personal; the intensely believable characters, especially Ginger, carry the weight of the film's themes without too many flashing-arrow declamatory scenes. The poverty of choices facing young women at the time is made clear, and the film invites us to consider the extent to which things have or have not moved on over 50 years.

Ginger and Rosa can seem a bit elliptical and detached in its style, but I found it compelling and convincing, and Elle Fanning's performance is worthy of celebration.

Ginger & Rosa Official Trailer from Adventure Pictures on Vimeo.

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