The latest film from writer-director Sally Potter opens with the famous images of the spreading mushroom cloud detonation in Hiroshima. After letting that footage unravel in all its slow-motion horror, the film cuts to the start of its narrative, but not before one addition by the filmmakers: a caption, right before the cut, explaining that the footage has been of the 1945 Hiroshima bombing. Seeming a tad unnecessary, the reminder does admittedly serve one purpose: to establish the time when the following scene takes place, in which two hospital-bound women form a bond and give birth to the eponymous characters. That being said, the device of having the teenage protagonists, whose friendship will face an emotional fallout against the backdrop of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, be born on the very day of the Hiroshima bombing is an early sign of how awkwardly blunt the film’s use of nuclear warfare as a narrative and thematic tool will prove to be.
The threat of nuclear holocaust plays alongside the disintegration of Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert)’s relationship, a friendship that has been lifelong since their respective mothers met on that fateful day in 1945. Now around sixteen years of age, the differences between the two girls finally sees them straying down different paths. While both have fears regarding the Cuban missile affair, Ginger leans towards militant protest while Rosa is more interested in her own sexual awakening, becoming drawn to Ginger’s arrogant, irresponsible father Roland (Alessandro Nivola). A womanising man, he leaves Ginger’s mother Natalie (Christina Hendricks), a former artist now devoted to domesticity, early in the film to pursue an existence of bohemian bachelorhood. After certain developments, Ginger begins to reject her family and friend, becoming heavily involved with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The question of the film’s excessive metaphor is whether the end of the world the frustrated, naive Ginger adamantly believes in is that of nuclear holocaust or the loss of stability in her home life.
Ginger & Rosa is set in London and primarily concerns English characters, but has a curious case of casting where three of the leads are American, alongside New Zealand-born Alice Englert as Rosa. Fanning and Hendricks in particular suffer from wavering, broad accents, both proving particularly weak in moments of high emotion, heightening the hammy feel of much of the film’s on-the-nose dialogue, especially the third act’s deviation into risible melodrama. Less than nuanced dialogue is not an inherent burden, depending on the film in question, but the vast majority of Ginger & Rosa’s screenplay is heavy on an irritating declarative style, with the characters spouting overt proclamations at each other rather than any believable interactions. Ginger’s constant doom-saying aside, Nivola’s father is guiltiest of this, endlessly pontificating about the constraints of societal norms and his suffering as a pacifist during the war as a means to justify his own actions. Annette Bening also has a few scenes as an American activist friend of Ginger’s godfathers, seemingly present only for a convenient, outspoken outsider perspective.
Alice Englert fares the best of the main cast, though after a certain point the character is relegated to plot device status and fleeting appearances. Despite what the film’s title may suggest, Potter doesn’t seem so concerned with Rosa’s state of mind, and the supposedly strong friendship with Ginger is never expressed particularly well; there’s a lot of giggling and clothes trying early on, but there’s an air of distance in the pair’s conversations even before conflict arises. Fanning’s natural sweetness gives her spotlight performance some weight, but, being thirteen at the time of filming, the talented actress doesn’t quite pull off playing an older age she has yet to experience herself.
The film’s highlight is fine cinematography from Robbie Ryan, though the sometimes striking lighting and compositions often highlight the screenplay’s hollowness even further. Any evocation of the period is also limited, the film dealing in empty London environments and unspecified coastal locations with no context expressed. It’s a broad depiction of a setting and time presumably chosen for specific attributes, and it doesn’t exactly help a film that unfortunately wallows in stereotypes, empty politicising and thin framework.