The principles of ’60s radicalism clash with the murkier morality of those who practiced it in Sally Potter’s sharply observed coming-of-age melodrama, “Ginger & Rosa.” The filmmaker, still best-known for “Orlando” 20 years after that breakout work, presents this conflict as it seen through the eyes of a teenage girl.
Ginger (Elle Fanning), nicknamed because of the red hair she inherited from her mother (Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men”), is a hip, jazz-and-poetry loving teen daughter of a radical chic couple in 1962 London. Mom has a hint of the traditional about her. But Dad (Alessandro Nivolla) insists that she and her friends call him by his first name, Roland.
Roland’s a writer and dedicated pacifist. Mom gave up a career in art to have Ginger right at the end of World War II.
It’s what ended World War II that drives Ginger to the nascent nuclear disarmament movement. Of course, Roland approves.
But Ginger’s fatherless, romantic pal Rosa (Alice Englert of “Beautiful Creatures”) doesn’t get it. She’s more into worldly things — boys, smoking, taking teenage risks. They sit in the tub together, confessing their dreams — Ginger’s decided to become a poet; Rosa is looking for true love — while soaking and shrinking their new Levis.
Potter’s film is at is most artful in the painterly ways she composes the wordless scenes of the girls testing cigarettes, hitchhiking with the wrong boys, and Rosa exploring heavy petting with another boy, showing off for Ginger.
Ginger’s world, away from Rosa, is of protests, protest planning meetings and listening in on the adult chat of her parents’ group, academic pacifists Mark (Timothy Spall) and Mark Two (Oliver Platt) and Mark Two’s outspoken lover, Bella (Annette Bening).
Heady stuff for a girl just deciding her worldview and what she wants to be when she grows up. But as much as she rejects her mother’s domesticity, as urgent as the anti-nukes movement must have been on the cusp of the Cuban Missile Crisis, is this the proper environment to raise a child?
As “The Ice Storm” passed judgment on ’70s morality, Potter wrestles with the idealism of the age and the malleable ethics of those who practiced it, contrasting the two Marks with Ginger’s committed pacifist/ committed womanizer father. Nivolla, of “Cocoa Before Chanel,” cuts a fine figure of a shaggy-haired writer who keeps a small sailboat, because of what it says about him, because “there’s poetry in small spaces” and because that tiny cabin is perfect for assignations with college coeds.
The Americans in the cast blend quite well with the native Brits. But the characters are all drawn in fairly broad strokes — Rosa’s carnal yearnings and disregard for the state of the world, Ginger’s doe-eyed obsession with the nuclear age that heralded her birth, Mom’s weeping frustrations trying to bring the wandering Roland to heel.
Bening gives Bella a beautifully brittle proto-feminist edge, but even that is a cliche.
That casts a veil of the overly-familiar to “Ginger & Rosa,” when compared to, say, the far superior “An Education.” There the sense that we’ve heard this argument before, that we remember how it came out, and that for all its high-mindedness, Potter is basically indulging in nothing more than ’60s nostalgia — albeit with a more jaundiced, adult eye.