The new film by director Sally Potter (Orlando, Tango Lesson) starts with stock footage of an atomic blast. A great way to open a film, if it was an Ed Wood B-picture. But Ginger & Rosa is not one of those.
It's the story of BFFs Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert, daughter of Kiwi director Jane Campion), both born in 1945, going through their lives in 60s London, where everyone lives under the shadow of nuclear annihilation. It's also the time of the nuclear family. Rosa's father split early on. Ginger's ultra-liberal dad, Roland (Alessandro Nivola), can't seem to keep his pants zipped, causing heartaches for mom (Mad Men's Christina Hendricks) and not providing any emotional support for the increasingly confused Ginger.
These feisty teenagers do everything together. Rosa usually leads Ginger to their little vices - staying up late, smoking, drinking, making out with the boys, etc. Shot by Robbie Ryan (Wuthering Heights, Red Road), these shenanigans are all blissful close-ups and sun flares, and the camera obviously adores the two young leads: ethereal redhead Ginger and pouty vamp brunette Rosa.
Things get a little hairy when the atheist, pacifist autonomy of mind-and-body preaching Roland takes a shine on Rosa, leaving Ginger jealous and very confused. She tries to take solace in the company of adults - her two fairy godfathers Mark 1 (Tim Spall) and Mark 2 (Oliver Platt) and Bella (unrecognizable Annette Benning). But you can see the emotional waterworks coming from miles away, with tearful confrontations and a lot of finger-pointing.
Potter gets the 60s setting right and the largely non-British cast does a great job, especially newcomer Englert, who exudes a certain charisma and confidence. I understand Potter's desire not to make anyone antagonistic in Ginger & Rosa, but Roland is an irrevocably contemptible, immoral man. Just because of that, the film suffers greatly in the second half. Too bad, because it could've been a great film about finding one's identity in the time of imminent destruction. Instead, it gets bogged down in high melodrama and never recovers.
Review originally published during the New York Film Festival in October 2012. Ginger & Rosa opens in limited theatrical release in the U.S. on February 1, and will be available on Blu-ray and DVD in the U.K. on February 11.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com.