Thursday, March 28, 2013

'Ginger and Rosa' comes of age in Ban-the-Bomb-era London

Posted By on Thu, Mar 28, 2013 at 8:08 AM

SHE LOOKS 16 TO ME: Elle Fanning in Ginger and Rosa
  • Adventure Pictures
  • SHE LOOKS 16 TO ME: Elle Fanning in 'Ginger and Rosa'
Film director Sally Potter has an eye for pale redheads. Her 1992 breakthrough film Orlando cast a young, arresting Tilda Swinton as a gender-switching, centuries-spanning figure. Potter's latest, loosely autobiographical film, Ginger and Rosa, presents "Mad Men"'s Christina Hendricks and Super 8's Elle Fanning as a scarlet-tressed mother and daughter pair in 1962 London. The color scheme of ginger hair and pearly complexions gives both actresses the quality of anguished angels in Potter's raw, revealing close-ups.

Ginger and Rosa unfolds as arguably Potter's least avant-garde film to date as it dramatizes a turbulent period in the lives of the 16-year-old title characters. A lovely prologue provides their backstory in just a handful of images: their mothers holding hands while giving birth in a 1945 maternity ward; their fathers sitting in a dingy waiting room; the girls, as toddlers, holding hands on a swing set. As precocious teens, Ginger (Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert, daughter of filmmaker Jane Campion) skip school, hitchhike and have modest adventures, but personal and societal changes threaten their BFF status.

Rosa proves more interested in the opposite sex than her friend, while Ginger, a budding poet, becomes increasingly active in Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Both girls consider as a role model Ginger's father Roland (Alessandro Nivola), an idealistic professor who served a jail sentence for being a conscientious objector during World War II. While the girls initially buy into Roland's romanticized self-image, he turns out to be the worst kind of intellectual, one who justifies his selfish, unfaithful behavior as noble refusals to submit to bourgeois conventions. Nivola gives the role an ideal blend of canny perceptiveness and maddening narcissism.

Thanks to Fanning's lovely emotional transparency, Ginger and Rosa works best when it conveys Ginger's changing perceptions of the world around her. A scene of the two girls wearing blue jeans while sharing a bath to shrink them revels in their easy adolescent camaraderie. As Ginger tries out different personal allegiances and pushes her political beliefs, she rises to tests of character more painful than the usual coming-of-age film fare. Fanning's work is particularly impressive when you learn that she was only 12 when cast as the 16-year-old.

As writer and director, Potter most effectively conveys isolation and introspection in Ginger and Rosa, but touches on less certain ground in scenes involving grown-ups and bigger groups. Timothy Spall, Annette Bening and Oliver Platt (the latter two playing an American couple) serve as gentle mentors to Ginger, but their conversational scenes feel underwritten and unconvincing. Ginger and Rosa doesn't seem to understand its adult supporting characters any better than most young people understand adults. Nevertheless, Potter and Fanning do a wonderful job of conveying the way everything seems like a life-and-death matter for teenagers, from arguments with parents to the fate of the world.

Ginger and Rosa. 3 stars. Directed by Sally Potter. Stars Elle Fanning, Alessandro Nivola. Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., March 29. At the Regal Tara.

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