Ginger & Rosa tells the story of two 17-year-old girls who are coming of age in England, 1962. With the creation of the atomic bomb, mankind had finally unlocked the power to obliterate all living things from the planet. The older generations have survived two world wars, and even though the threat of the bomb scares them, they have seen enough truly horrible things and probably take this atom bomb business with a grain of salt. For the youth, what is the point of planning and preparing for a future that might not exist? Seventy years later, we still live with the threat of total and complete nuclear annihilation. It isn’t talked about as much these days, but the bombs still exist, the threat is still there. America is the only country that was foolish enough to drop one of these monstrosities, and even though they now reside in the power and control of some truly demented and psychotic individuals, they do not pose the threat in our hearts that they once did. I suppose one could say that there is a human fail-safe, something that prevents one from destroying too many. Even the ruthless have parameters. The parents in this movie fear the bomb, but not in the way that the children do. They are aware of those parameters. They know the bottomless well that is mankind’s evil, but they also know that life goes on. Preparing the next batch is possibly the only way one can conquer evil.
Born on the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Ginger (Elle Fanning, who was 13 when Ginger & Rosa was shot) and Rosa (Alice Englert) are 17 and the best of friends. Their mothers met during childbirth and remained friends, and the daughters have continued the tradition. This is covered nicely in the movie by imagery of hands holding one another. Not only does it quickly establish a visual relationship, but it also gives us a hint of how this is all going to work out. To survive this world, we are going to have to work together. Ginger’s mother, Natalie (Christina Hendricks), is married to Roland (Alessandro Nivola), but theirs is not a happy marriage. Ginger never refers to him as Dad, simply calling him Roland. Roland was a conscientious objector during the war and was thrown in jail. It is this cross that he shoulders throughout his life, and it makes him irresistible to young girls but intolerable to everyone else. He may be in touch with his emotions, but he is the last person you can rely on. Ginger’s mother was once a painter but gave it up when she became a pregnant teenager. She has tried her best to be a good mother and wife, but notice how easily her husband and daughter abandon her for others. Roland failed as a father, Natalie as a mother, I wonder how Ginger will fair. This family is a collection of restless people, full of ideas and wants, burdened by sacrifice, and spinning quicker and quicker towards destruction. Ginger is worried about the bomb obliterating life; she should be worried about her family obliterating hope.
Rosa is the product of an absent father and a lackluster mother (Jodhi May). Ginger and her are inseparable, and together they start to rebel. They listen to jazz music, smoke cigarettes, discover fashion, and attend atomic protest rallies. Ginger goes because she desires to be a poet and acquire knowledge. Rosa goes because that is where the boys are. The more Ginger throws herself into political rebellion the more Rosa throws herself at boys. Ginger isn’t quite ready—she is a girl intellectually developed but sexually cloistered. Fanning plays her beautifully, one moment looking confident, rebellious, sexy, the next a scared and hurt little girl. Rosa is the same age as Ginger, but she quickly ages into an attractive young woman. One could make an argument here that sex turns the girl into a woman and that Rosa reflects that transformation, but I prefer to read it another way. Ginger’s mother had Ginger young, probably the same age that Ginger and Rosa are. Rosa is becoming Ginger’s mother before Ginger’s own eyes, and Ginger’s disgust with her friend is really her disgust with her mother. During a domestic spat, Ginger does next to nothing to defend her mother and her role as a wife and a mother. In another scene, she is pleased to find that her mother has returned to painting now that her family has abandoned her. Does Ginger hate her mother, or does she fear becoming her? To further complicate matters, Rosa’s relationship is with Roland. It is no surprise, Rosa and we see it coming from the beginning. When Rosa admits to Ginger that she is pregnant, the cycle is complete. Roland has robbed another girl of her youth and thrust her into the world of the mother. Ginger looks on, full of disgust and pity.
Ginger has a secondary family, a collection of intellectual surrogates, and they are considerably more fun than her biological family. Mark One (Timothy Spall) and Mark Two (Oliver Platt) are delightful old queens living out their lives among tomes of literature and knowledge. Their friend, Bella (Annette Bening), is their intellectual equal and possibly a lesbian, representing disgust for the type of masculine sexuality that Roland presents. They help Ginger along in her thoughts and theories, but they are not an actual family that can support Ginger. They are just another piece of a very complicated puzzle.
Displaying a wonderful contradiction, Rosa becomes attracted to the Church and God while being attracted to Roland. In her heart, she probably doesn’t see their affair as a sin of adultery; she probably sees it as an eventuality: Her and Roland will marry, she will raise a family, go to Church on Sunday, and cook dinners. Ginger probably sees her poetry and protests as an eventuality that will take her away from this bland and domestic world. Two friends, both of the same age, both want to save the world in very different ways.
What Ginger really wants is very close to what Rosa wants, and probably what writer/director, Sally Potter, is saying the world needs: Roland has to grow up. Ginger wants her dad to be a dad, Rosa needs a father figure, and Roland himself needs to be man enough to take action. The script is not very strong when it comes to ironing this out, but I give credit to Potter for suggesting that when the men fail, the women aren’t strong enough to take over on their own. Nor are the men strong enough to handle it without the women. Even the homosexual couple needs a sassy female companion. In the end, we are all weak, and we all need a helping hand to get through life. The movie ends on a moment of hope. A moment where Ginger can see this for what it is and forgive us for our shortcomings.
Ginger & Rosa (2012)
Written and Directed By: Sally Potter
Produced By: Andrew Litvin & Christopher Sheppard
Starring: Elle Fanning, Alice Englert, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks, Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt, Annette Bening, Jodhi May
A24 Distributors, Running Time 90 minutes, Rated PG-13, Released March 1, 2013.