'Ginger & Rosa': Intriguing and artistic
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
British writer, musician and filmmaker Sally Potter has one of the most intriguing and confounding filmographies of any director working today, but she's never made a movie as conventional as her latest, "Ginger & Rosa." That observation should not be taken to imply that conventionality is a bad thing. In the case of this girls-coming-of-age-in-the-atomic-age story, Potter's straightforward approach pays some worthwhile dividends, both in wisdom and in entertainment value.
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Potter's work encompasses out-and-out experimental, or, if you prefer, avant-garde fare (from 1983's "The Gold Diggers" to 2009's "Rage"), sumptuously subversive period pictures (the Virginia Woolf adaptation "Orlando," the WWII drama "The Man Who Cried") and politically conscious feminist romances ("Yes" and "The Tango Lesson"). "Ginger & Rosa" is a period piece that feels close to Potter's own experience, even though the characters here are a few years older than Potter (who was born in 1948) was at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, which is when this movie's set. The place is England, and Ginger and Rosa (Elle Fanning and Alice Englert) are best friends in their late teens. Rosa's glum household is headed by a single mom, while Ginger has a more boho arrangement that includes a lefty professor dad (Alessandro Nivola), a wide-eyed, put-upon mom (Christina Hendricks) and family friends from across the pond and elsewhere (including Annette Bening and Oliver Platt) who imbue Ginger with a political consciousness while encouraging her artistic aspirations.
The personal bleeds into the political, badly, when Rosa takes up with Ginger's dad, whose worldview insists that monogamy is just another bourgeois construct. Given the character's actual behavior, he would really seem to believe that being a decent and truthful human being is just another bourgeois construct. Once anxiety over the Cuban missile crisis reaches its height, Ginger's concerns turn to whether there'll be any humanity left on the planet to behave well or badly. The movie is at its most lively as it implicitly grapples with the very direct issues, both sexual and household, that informed what eventually became the feminist reaction to the counterculture. But "Ginger & Rosa" is not a sociological study, it's a drama, and it's in the work of its superb ensemble cast that it really finds its voice. While the period touches that Potter works in are apt and say a lot with minimal means (Ginger's adoption of the black turtleneck sweater, for instance), it's the way that the two young leads, Fanning and Englert, inhabit Potter's construct that's really impressive. These young performers create a bond that's palpable while projecting a youthful energy and curiosity that's infectious but never out of step with their simulating a cultural and historical moment that's, yikes, about 50 years old. As tough-minded but affectionate as Potter's perspective on the time and her characters is, it's the way that Fanning and Englert animate their characters that makes the movie special.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.