Judge Gordon Sullivan wants to put off his coming-of-age until at least eighty.
Friendship pulled them together. Love tore them apart.
In 1992, Sally Potter released her international debut, Orlando, a film that simultaneously announced a new voice in British cinema to a wider audience while also giving Tilda Swinton her first taste of international stardom. Since then, we can count on a new Sally Potter film every three or four years, each of them differing in period and genre but united by Potter's vision and her ability to attract some of the best actors of the day to her projects. Twenty years after Orlando, we have Ginger & Rosa, which marks Potter's first attempt to deal with adolescence while continuing her commitment to hiring amazing actors. Though its subject matter may turn some viewers off, fans of coming-of-age narratives and the actors will appreciate Potter's historical drama.
Facts of the Case
Ginger & Rosa are the subjects of the film. Ginger (Elle Fanning, Super 8) and Rosa (Alice Englehart, making her debut) are best friends in 1962 London. Against the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis, the pair will learn that the bond that unites them may be severed by something more personal than a nuclear event.
Luckily, there have been very few extinction-level near misses in the twentieth century despite the ubiquitous presence of nuclear weapons and "second strike" capabilities. And yet the 1962 Cuban missile crisis was one of those near-misses, the kind of thing that could have effectively wipe out humanity and leave the planet uninhabitable for most vertebrates. Given the gravity of such an event, it's actually kind of arrogant to use it as a backdrop to a story, though some films have tried.
In the case of Ginger & Rosa, the arrogance of using the Cuban Missile Crisis as a backdrop for a coming-of-age story is tempered by several factors. The first is the way in which the plot itself is enmeshed in concerns over the nuclear threat. This isn't just some story that happens to take place in October 1962. No, Ginger's father Roland is an anti-nuclear intellection and Ginger is very much swept up in anti-nuke activity. The fact that the formerly inseparable title characters have different levels of commitment to this cause is just one of the cracks in the façade of their friendship, revealing the price of growing up.
Growing up is what the film is really about, as expected. The film is thus very character-driven as we take Ginger as our guide to the world of 1962. She encounters not only her broken family (and the burgeoning attraction her father has to Rosa) but also her "uncles"—the gay couple of Mark and Mark (played with wonderful humor by Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt)—and a fellow peace-activist friend (played by Annette Benning). One of the chief difficulties of making a coming-of-age drama is navigating between the shared feelings that most people share and the inevitable clichés that we use to talk about them. Ginger & Rosa largely avoids this problem by focusing so much on the details of the world of 1962, bringing a specificity to the world of Ginger and Rosa that overcomes the tendency towards cliché.
Potter's vision of 1962 is aided by the fact that she can command such a stunning cast. Elle Fanning will be a force to be reckoned with in the decades to come, since she is already a tremendous actress with the skills to appear in projects as diverse as Super 8, Twixt, and We Bought a Zoo in the same year. As Ginger, she maintains the gravitas she displayed in Super 8 but brings to it an openness that she hasn't previously shown viewers. As Rosa, newcomer Alice Englert (daughter, it must be said, of Jane Campion) is the perfect foil, all feigned maturity and newfound wiles. Spall and Platt are simple perfect as the comic bright spots of Ginger's life, playing familiarity with a lived-in grace that few couples (gay or straight) can manage. Alessandro Nivola plays Roland with the perfect mixture of selfishness and charm, making us see why Rosa might find him attractive while revealing his darkness to us. Christina Hendricks as his estranged wife is sympathetic (for leaving Roland), but also difficult to admire (for her leaving of Ginger). It's an ensemble that could make the phone book interesting, and combined with Potter's take on the genre and excellent cinematography make Ginger & Rosa a film that acting fans can appreciate.
No one has stepped up to distribute Ginger & Rosa on hi-def in America, so this DVD will have to do for now. That's okay because the 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer is very solid. Detail is strong throughout, with colors that feel well saturated and period-appropriate. Black levels are appropriately deep and consistent, and no digital artefacts or compression problems crop up. It's a pretty exemplary standard-def transfer for this kind of non-blockbuster drama. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is similarly impressive, offering clean dialogue that's well balanced with surrounds that offer plenty of ambient effects.
It's doubly impressive that the transfer for the film looks so good, considering how stuffed this disc is with bonus content. Things kick off with a commentary by Sally Potter, who spends most of the track's running time talking about the process of filming with asides about the story and her interpretation of events. A making-of documentary is also included, running 30 minutes and covering the film's production with a slightly personal touch from director Joseph Matthews. We also get 35 minutes of interview with the cast that give us personal insights into the filmmaking process for each of them. More interviews are included in the 60-minute "Anatomy of a Film." Finally, a single deleted scene is included, along with a wonderful introduction by Potter about the decision to cut it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Ginger and Rosa makes a pretty disastrous third-act misstep that gathers all the characters together for a revelation-filled angst-fest that feels like it was transcribed out of the production of a high school murder mystery. It's a clanging bad note in an otherwise sonorous experience, and though the film largely recovers, I can see lots of viewers leaving Ginger & Rosa with a bad taste in their mouths.
Ginger & Rosa isn't quite Sally Potter's best film, but it continues in the tradition of her best work by trying to tell something other than a typical story with a cast of truly excellent actors. It's recommended for fans of the director or any of the actors.
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