More clumsy coming-of-age than potent period drama

Far from the swinging ‘60s, filmmaker Sally Potter’s depiction of London in 1962 is a far more sobering affair, with food and work scarce, tireless peace protestors, and the increasing threat of a Cuban Missile Crisis lingering in the city smog. It’s a tough time to be an adult, but seemingly even tougher for the main characters in Ginger & Rosa.

Elle Fanning (sister of The Twilight Saga’s Dakota) stars as the first titular character, Ginger. Nicknamed as such for her (awfully dyed) rouged hair, she’s a fiery character all round. Seventeen going on 30, this aspiring poet and leftie activist takes inspiration from her grim life both outside and at home, where she lives with her bickering mother Natalie (Hendricks) and stepfather Roland (Nivola), a boisterous but charming boho-academic and once imprisoned pacifist. Outside her turbulent domestic situation is where Ginger really lets loose, embracing nascent womanhood with her best friend Rosa (Australian newcomer Englert). They live in each other’s pockets: nicking cigarettes, shrinking jeans in the bath, attending ‘Ban the Bomb’ rallies and hitchhiking across rural England. With only her aloof mother at home,

Rosa is the more assertive of the pair, hoping to speed through adolescence as quickly as possible and meet her knight in shining armour. But when Cupid shoots his arrow in the most unlikely and disturbing of places, Ginger struggles with the realisation that she and Rosa are not only growing up, but growing apart.

Still revelling in her critically acclaimed adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando from 1992, Potter’s unique art films are so ornate and divisive that at best they could be compared to a sumptuous renaissance painting, and at worst shunned as pretentious poppycock. Thankfully, Ginger & Rosa sees Potter toning down her highbrow inhibitions, telling the universal story of rebellious youth through Robbie Ryan’s charming, naturalistic cinematography. The nomadic period in the girls’ lives is also reflected in the expert use of music, mixing traditional bebop jazz from Charlie Parker with the jaunty rock & roll of Little Richard.

Despite these nice flourishes, Potter’s casting choices make certain scenes and entire characters jarring and trite. Particularly hokey is Hendricks, cast against type as the pinny-wearing, stay-at-home mother, a far cry from the buxom matriarch Joan in Mad Men. Elsewhere, fellow American Nivola lacks the necessary magnetism to pull off a nascent father figure, doubling up as an irresistible sex symbol. Fortunately it’s not all that bad on the wings, with Spall and Platt providing some much needed comic relief as Ginger’s gay godfathers Mark & Mark Two, and Annette Bening as their visiting American poet chum.

Aside from a few sweet moments, it’s often unclear what kind of story Potter is trying to tell. While it starts as a small coming-of-age Cold War story, the tension escalates to an embellished and clumsy finish.

All that said, there is one shining beacon of majesty in Ginger & Rosa, and her name is Elle Fanning. The 14-year-old proves herself an effervescent screen presence, articulating the bulk of the drama while Englert’s Rosa, who is also impressive, strives to blur it. Not only does the young American handle the Queen’s English with great aplomb, she has a quivering timbre in her voice that is fragile yet imperious and totally representative of a typical teenage girl encroaching on womanhood. If the performance had been in a different movie, she would have bagged an Oscar nomination this year. Resembling an almost Meryl Streep-like grace and zealousness, something makes me think we’ll be seeing more excellent performances from her in years to come.

Ginger & Rosa (11)


Dir: Sally Potter; UK drama, 2012, 90 mins; Elle Fanning, Alice Englert, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks, Annete Bening, Oliver Platt, Timothy Spall
Premiered April 11
Playing nationwide

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