Article/ The Atomic Age: Ginger and Rosa

Sally Potter’s new film captures a maelstrom of political and personal rebellion in 1960s London

By Ian Haydn Smith

Ginger and Rosa opens under a cloud. The atomic age dawns as the full power of the allied forces’ arsenal is unleashed into the sky over Japan. The peace that follows promises the birth of a new era. In 1962, Khrushchev’s Soviet forces appear to be amassing a nuclear arsenal in Castro’s Cuba, much to the protestation of the Kennedy administration. In response to this provocation, the US has delivered an ultimatum to the Eastern Bloc: remove all arms from America’s doorstep or face a cataclysmic response.

Ginger and Rosa, the daughters of two close friends, grow up in a Britain experiencing seismic changes. They gradually come to realise that the victory which ended the Second World War was not so much the cessation of a global conflict, as a line being drawn under the past, with the future a more terrifying prospect.

Sally Potter’s seventh feature is an ambitious account of a world in flux, as witnessed by a teenage girl. Ginger, played by the precociously talented Elle Fanning, not only carries the burden of a fractured family life – she is also weighed down by a society seemingly hell-bent on its own destruction.

Ginger’s father (Alessandro Nivola), a pacifist who was a conscientious objector in the war against Germany, is an outspoken academic whose writings are admired by the ‘Ban the Bomb’ movement. Both Ginger and Rosa (a striking performance by newcomer Alice Englert) attend CND demonstrations, but it soon becomes clear that Rosa’s passions lie along a more intimate path.

Potter’s films have all examined and challenged the way gender roles are constructed. (Nowhere is this more apparent than in her stunning adaptation of Virginia Woolf ’s Orlando.) Some may look for biographical elements in Ginger and Rosa. It is not clear how much Potter’s own life experiences inform the girls’ journey. However, the story she tells seems more an attempt to capture the essence of the times. Rather than propel us through a course of events, delivering a grand narrative that makes overarching statements about that era, she offers us glimpses – snatched moments from these girls’ lives. Austerity Britain is re-imagined as a series of barren locations, from bombedout residences that have yet to be built upon, to the wastelands around gas towers and electricity pylons. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan conjures up a dream-like vision, not dissimilar to the textures he created for Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, albeit in a radically different, urban environment.

These images create a richly evocative tapestry of Ginger’s development, but also raise more general questions about responsibility. The weaving of Ginger’s emotional and social growth, encouraged by a collection of intellectuals who help shape her worldview, highlight the importance of taking account of one’s personal, as well as political, accountability. Her relationship with her mother (Christina Hendricks) and the contradictory nature of her father, forces Ginger to accept that taking stock of one’s own life is just as important as trying to change the world.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

Ginger and Rosa screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 19 October. For details click here.