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A World on the Brink, a Friendship Tested

Ginger & Rosa (2012)

Nicola Dove/56th BFI London Film Festival

Sally Potter has always been famous for making movies considered unmakable. “Ginger & Rosa” is her determined attempt to enter the mainstream by telling a straightforward story in a straightforward — albeit minimalist — way. Her instincts as a filmmaker for style, sound and faces are as sharp as ever, but she seems to have forgotten that sometimes the most direct way of making a point is by going in a roundabout way.

On the day one of the atomic bombs is dropped in Japan, in London best friends Natalie (Christina Hendricks) and Anoushka (a criminally underused Jodhi May) each have a daughter. They grow up in the same housing project to be Ginger (Elle Fanning, playing older than her true age) and Rosa (Alice Englert). It’s 1962 and vague rebellion is in the air. When Ginger tells her father Roland (Alessandro Nivola) that she is going to Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament meetings, he is delighted. No one really minds that she is skipping school. Rosa and Ginger hitchhike to a beach, where Rosa cops off with a boy and Ginger reads. Under the imminent threat of nuclear destruction, life is to be lived.

Cinematographer Robbie Ryan has worked on Andrea Arnold’s last three films, and brings a similar visual style to this story of urbane malaise that he did to “Wuthering Heights.” London is a red-brown combination of damp-looking bricks, wooden floors, muddy parks and unbrushed hair. Most of the shots are tightly focused on Ms. Fanning — no doubt in part to maintain the period imagery — and most of the outdoor action takes place at night. Everything is chilly and slightly foreboding. Ginger scribbles poetry in a little notebook, much as Liv Tyler did in “Stealing Beauty,” but with none of the sexual allure. She is writing for herself to figure out her own thoughts and opinions, and not to titillate a male director.

While Rosa is a lost and slightly neglected soul, Ginger is surrounded by nothing but love. In addition to her parents, she has two jolly godfathers, both named Mark (Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall) and their friend Bella (Annette Bening), who immediately encourages Ginger’s intelligent activism. Everyone loves her and wants the best for her. So how does she end up feeling so lost and alone?

For great swathes of the action the audience also feels lost and alone. Ms. Potter clearly knows the material so well — in interviews it’s strongly suggested, though not directly confirmed, that the film is autobiographical — that she has not felt the need to embellish the basic outline of any of the relationships. This means some questions are frustratingly unanswered: How have Natalie and Anoushka managed to stay so close in spite of so much trouble? Why does Roland and Natalie’s marriage curdle now? Although Rosa and Ginger have not been at school together for the last six years, how has their friendship remained so insular?

Ms. Fanning is wonderful as a smart young woman trying to grow up and determined to live in a world where that is possible. The whole movie stands or falls on her face, as she listens around corners or to the radio, grasping at key pieces of information to figure out where she stands. It's a quiet performance, the still center around which the whole movie rotates, and Ms. Fanning never overplays it. It's an surprisingly mature performance. Ms. Hendricks is also excellent as a woman so taken for granted she can only lash out in resentment at a husband whose self-pity is his excuse for his colossal selfishness. Mr. Nivola’s long justifications are of a man so convinced of his own righteousness that he just doesn’t understand how someone could not be as enthralled with him as he is. But even though Rosa’s actions drive the whole story — and Ms. Englert is very good in her first movie — nothing is shown from her point of view. Just one scene of Rosa's life without Ginger would have helped — and it might also have given Ms. May something worthwhile to do.

The character Ginger might be self-absorbed and unable to see beyond her own experience, but an all-seeing director should go a little farther. A little more detail about the life she is trying to save would have deepened the film and broadened its appeal even more. She was aiming for a masterpiece, but instead Ms. Potter has made a slightly underdeveloped poem full of raging emotions it doesn’t quite know what to do with. On the other hand, then that is the perfect metaphor.


Opens on Oct. 19 in Britain and on March 15, 2013 in New York and Los Angeles.

Written and directed by Sally Potter; director of photography, Robbie Ryan; edited by Anders Refn; production design by Carlos Conti; costumes by Holly Waddington; produced by Christopher Sheppard and Andrew Litvin; released by Artificial Eye (Britain) and A24 (United States). Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. This film is rated 12A by B.B.F.C. and PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Elle Fanning (Ginger), Alice Englert (Rosa), Alessandro Nivola (Roland), Christina Hendricks (Natalie), Timothy Spall (Mark), Oliver Platt (Mark Two), Jodhi May (Anoushka) and Annette Bening (Bella).


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