The biggest problem with Sally Potter’s 1960s period piece Ginger & Rosa is that it’s hardly about Rosa at all. The two girls—played by Elle Fanning and Alice Englert—are best friends who grow apart as they approach young adulthood, with Fanning getting involved with leftist politics, while Englert starts looking for a man to marry. The choices Englert makes drive the movie to its dramatic conclusion, but otherwise, there isn’t much in the film about her, or even much about the central friendship. And that’s a disappointment, because at the start of the film, when it’s more about the relationship between these two—when Potter shows them having intimate, improvisatory conversations about boys and life, while ironing each other’s hair or shrinking their blue jeans in the tub—Ginger & Rosa develops a strong nostalgic vibe.
But with the way the movie develops, a better title for it would’ve been Ginger & Africa—the latter being the real name of Fanning’s character, given to her by her bohemian father, Alessandro Nivola. As Fanning navigates through a community of artists and anti-nuclear activists—and alienates herself from her mother, Christina Hendricks—she comes to realize that the theoretical war she’s preparing for may not be as devastating to her personally as what her friend and family are capable of doing to her. This is a movie about a young woman figuring out what her identity should be, set against a time of dramatic change.
Potter (Orlando, Yes) evokes the feel of early-’60s London fairly well, conveying the protagonist’s sense that revolution may be the only alternative to impending doom. And Potter gets strong performances up and down her cast—though it remains strange throughout to have so many Americans playing Brits. Ginger & Rosa is best when it’s at its most impressionistic, though, as in the opening montage, which tells the story of the stars’ birth and girlhood in slightly more than one minute. The movie can be affecting at times, and might’ve been even more so if Potter hadn’t made its theme so explicit, via heavy “this is the point” speeches delivered during what’s otherwise a powerful climax. Given how audacious Potter’s movies have been in the past—and given the radical inclinations of her characters here—Ginger & Rosa is far more down-the-middle than it needs to be.