Director Sally Potter was about my age during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and our parents were also active in the anti-nuclear arms race movement. Americans were caught up in daily duck-and-cover drills and resisting civil defense hysteria (my parents were the only ones of my class not to give permission for fingerprinting for corpse identification), but Ginger & Rosa sensitively explores how the looming eve of destruction was absorbed as a more amorphous threat for two English teenagers.
The opening footage of the Hiroshima bombing establishes the Age of Anxiety, and the atomic fallout seems to hang over the two girls born next to each other at the same hospital. Their families live in a left-wing, somewhat bohemian milieu, where the girls grow up to be inseparable best friends, Ginger (Elle Fanning with long red hair) and Rosa (Alice Englert).
By 1962, Rosa is the aggressive leader for experimenting with cigarette smoking, wearing tight clothes, kissing boys, and cutting school. Ginger keeps hearing the drumbeat of news about Britain’s expanding nuclear arsenal, and her parents let her stay out late to attend meetings of the Youth Movement Against the Bomb. Her mother, the flame-haired Natalie (Christina Hendricks), gave up painting for childrearing, and her literature teacher-father, Roland (Alessandro Nivola), was a jailed pacifist during World War II.
She’s also supported by her gay godfathers Mark (Timothy Spall), who was a conscientious objector ambulance driver in the war, and Mark Two (Oliver Platt) as well as their husky-voiced American friend, poet/activist Bella, played by Annette Bening. (Potter’s late mother Caroline, to whom the film is dedicated, was friends with the poet Denise Levertov, who encouraged Sally’s early experimental films.)
But Ginger’s mounting fears of nuclear annihilation parallels the risks to her psychological health when Roland’s continuing infidelities (with his blonde students, how conventional) lead to her parents’ unhappy separation. (Along with this role and Mad Men, Hendricks has the corner on 1960’s conflicted women.) Ginger rebels against her mother to live with her dad (though his apartment is a grungy garret, his sailboat is cool), bringing along with her teddy bears and poetry.
The more Ginger becomes involved in the increasingly combative political demonstrations, the more Rosa acts out sexually as a temptress Roland all too willing (and cringingly) embraces—a best friend’s emotional betrayal may have never been so cruelly portrayed on screen. As Ginger hears the two noisily have (mysterious to her) sex in the next room, Fanning heartbreakingly expresses hurt with slowly falling tears and seemingly with every fiber of her being. Her family implodes as much as the world seems about to during those 13 days in October.
Making the political so intensely personal is an unusual take on the transformation towards swinging England that is usually telegraphed musically in the movies. Ginger’s pick of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” on a jukebox (the sole rock selection on the jazzy soundtrack) attracts a mod-styled boy to sidle up to her, but Ginger is far more overwhelmed by her life, and the potential end of civilization, to find solace just in music, unlike the boys in David Chase’s Not Fade Away.
Sometimes Potter seems to borrow too much of the competitive and destructive female relationships from the plot of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Still, Ginger & Rosa is a revealing response—both in theme and in Robbie Ryan’s exquisite color cinematography—to the black-and-white, post-war British New Wave dramas, such as by Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, and Karel Reisz, that rarely dealt with what life was like for a girl, especially one yearning for a better world.