April 2, 2013

Squandered Potential: Ginger & Rosa at Cinemapolis

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Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa is, at its core, an exploration of the doldrums which pervaded pre-Beatlemania England at the height of the nuclear scare. It is a film steeped in melancholia and muted gray tones. This is not the optimal fare for those seeking an uplift at the movies.

The year is 1962, the Soviets are threatening to launch nuclear missiles at the US from Cuba and, in Britain, many citizens are angered at the government’s unresponsive behavior. Ginger (Elle Fanning) is a girl born to a pair of teenagers totally unfit for parenting. Her mother is Natalie (Christina Hendricks), her father is Roland (Alessandro Nivola) and her best friend is Rosa (Alice Englert). The icy distance between Ginger and her parents, particularly her father, is exacerbated by the threat of nuclear annihilation. Since the world could end at any given moment, more or less every character in the film has decided to hang up their boots and allow themselves to do very regrettable things. It’s hard for them to care about the finer details of right and wrong when the imminent threat of a worldwide holocaust looms.

Ginger and Rosa attend peace rallies, get into fights with their parents — teenage angst is established — and play hooky from school. Ginger is a bookish, spirited girl who is misunderstood by her mother, and somehow feels the burden of the world’s end resting on her shoulders. Rosa, also born to irresponsible teenage parents, feels no such encumbrance in her life, and is attracted to makeup, music, boys and beatnik culture. Rosa hooks up with blokes from the pub, while Ginger stays buried in her T.S. Eliot book and her growing fear about the end of the world worsens. Ginger’s father is a pacifist who was jailed for his unwillingness to fight during World War II. It is revealed that he is a derelict whose disillusionment with humanity has morphed into a nihilistic outlook on everything, including his daughter. For reasons the film doesn’t explain thoroughly, Rosa recognizes a kindred spirit in Roland, and Ginger’s world begins to shatter.

The film’s first half remains stubbornly in limbo, refusing to take flight. Potter’s camera finds nothing of any particular profundity to focus on, and is obsessed with close-ups of Fanning’s face and the cold, dreary light that permeates most of the film’s scenes. For its first half, the film’s muddled focus is jarringly noticeable. It’s also a shame that Potter wastes actors as good as Annette Benning and Oliver Platt by giving them far too little screen time. The movie ensnares itself in a waxwork structure, and though its characters are fully embodied, they are given far too little to do. Fanning dons a flawless British accent, but we don’t get to see any of her acting chops.

I prayed for the film to achieve lift off into some state of profundity, which it finally did when Rosa began sleeping with Ginger’s father. The stakes are raised at last, the movie finds its focus and the characters come alive. The strength of Fanning’s performance is hauntingly palpable as she tries to muffle the inexorable end of the world while her father beds her best friend in the room next door. The film hits its strongest point here, using the destruction of Ginger’s relationships with her father and beloved best friend as a microcosm for the possibility of the world annihilated by nuclear missiles.

Elle Fanning is a marvel as Ginger — graceful, nuanced and, in the film’s best scenes, she’s harrowingly powerful. Equally good is Timothy Spall as her godfather, the film’s lone cast member who has refused to let the overhanging nuclear threat send him tumbling into promiscuity. Alessandro Nivola is bleakly unsympathetic as Ginger’s jaded father, crying to Schubert on his record player as the Cuban Missile Crisis looms, and living the unaffected life of a bohemian. As Rosa, Alice Englert is a major find in her first leading film role. Englert’s subtle transformation from rebellious teenager into a woman mature enough to play wife to Ginger’s father, delivers a much-needed sucker punch. Rosa can grow up, but Ginger is trapped, and that’s a theme that hits where it hurts.

The movie itself longs to be a brilliant, bleak tragedy. At times it evokes Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, set during the same period, on the opposite side of the Atlantic. It longs to hone in on the way two young girls fall desperately in love when they are misunderstood by the end the world around them. In this regard, it evokes Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, a film that is dedicated to the bond between murderous teenage girls. Sadly, this film is not dedicated to that bond — its main loyalty lies with the overwhelming sadness and fear shrouding Great Britain and Ginger’s private world. Fanning and and Englert are excellent in their own right, but the movie doesn’t properly emphasize the vital lifeline it asks us to believe Ginger has with Rosa; it is presented as a constant. We are never allowed to see how the friendship was formed, how much Rosa means to Ginger or just how devastating Rosa’s betrayal could have been. Although the movie deftly evokes an atmosphere of depression and anxiety, its most pronounced feature is its wasted potential and the disappointment at what it could have been.

Original Author: Mark DiStefano