The fabled ‘Swinging Sixties’ is looked upon as an era of counter-culture and subversion, where the only conventional thing was to be unconventional. It seems to be remembered fondly by those who were there at the time and at the right age to appreciate it, but for the rest of us it holds a semi-mythical status as a pivotal point in the century, a time when radical change was constantly in the air and provided the basis for people to conduct their lives around. This reputation that the Sixties have developed tends to blur our view: our conception of the Sixties is of an atmosphere rather than of the people living within that atmosphere. The real strength of Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa is that it brings the individuals to the fore.
Ginger and Rosa, the eponymous characters, are best friends when we meet them, and the narrative focuses on how their friendship fares when ideology comes between them. In their late teenage years, they are at exactly the right impressionable age to adopt the forceful idealism of the era – but this idea of idealism must be examined briefly, for there are two important sides of it: the selfish or the selfless.
The two girls constitute a dichotomy in this regard. Ginger’s idealistic energies are spent on coming to terms with the Cuban missile crisis, and in turn becoming involved with the CND. This type of idealism is justifiable and wholly admirable, born out of care for the world at large rather than for oneself, and it provides a stark contrast to Rosa’s version, which is more of the hedonistic, free-love, do-whatever-the-hell-you-want variety. This contrast in attitudes inevitably leads to disharmony in the friendship, and it is much to Potter’s credit that both the friendship and its struggles are portrayed so genuinely; they are portrayed definitively as people rather than dramatic vehicles for their respective beliefs, and their actions consequently always appear natural, never as if these things are happening solely to move the story onwards.
Of course, not all the credit must go to Potter: the two girls give excellent performances. Elle Fanning as Ginger can scarcely be praised enough. Her performance proves her an actress with maturity beyond her years; utterly convincing as an intelligent girl of 16-17 years, she was only thirteen at the time of filming. Her role is an emotionally intense one, with circumstances too overwhelming for one so young to know how to deal with, and Fanning portrays this intensity brilliantly in one of the most memorable acting performances I’ve seen for a long while. Alice Englert convinces as Rosa in her first full-length film, and should be one to watch out for in future roles.
The supporting cast, including Timothy Spall, Christina Hendricks and Oliver Platt among others, is a solid one, but none are really given the opportunity to showcase their formidable talents: their characters seem to exist solely to facilitate the story of the two girls. As a result it sometimes feels as if Ginger and Rosa focuses too much on its two main characters, and that the force of those characters is due more to the strength of their performances than the strengths of the film.
This tends to hold true: as a whole, Ginger and Rosa does not work all that well. It moves a bit too slowly, lacks fluidity throughout, and feels laborious to sit right through to the end – a worrying sign for any film. But the film has some excellent aspects, not least the two central performances, and Potter shows great intelligence in her portrayal of the way people interact with each other when personal beliefs form a significant obstacle in their relations.