The 1960s continue to prove an endless source of inspiration for filmmakers, particularly from the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. The dominant mode of these films is very often nostalgic, tinged with a hint of rueful hand-wringing as their makers look back on the failed promise of the decade. These films are typically rife with superficial signifiers of the era and pack as many historical events into their running time as possible without really trying to understand any of them.
The legacy of May '68, for example, continues to loom large over France and has led to typically more thoughtful reflection among that nation's filmmakers (with Philippe Garrel and Olivier Assayas leading the way in recent years), but in the English-speaking world, setting a film in the '60s has generally proved a surefire way to court disaster. An example of the fruitlessness of the approach is David Chase's Not Fade Away, which subverts some of the clichés of the 1960s-set nostalgia piece, but still traffics heavily in the myths of the era, naïvely positing rock n' roll as something like a transcendent force embodying all the positivity of the decade.
With Ginger & Rosa, Sally Potter manages to avoid nearly every pratfall of such period pieces, focusing on extreme alienation rather than enlightenment, and wringing a powerful and jaundiced coming-of-age story from the decade's less trod corners. In Potter's vision, the '60s aren't about illumination, but fear. Significantly setting her film in the early part of the decade, in 1962, Potter brings her intentionally narrowed and elliptical focus to a teenage girl's search for identity in the face of familial discontent and the ever-looming presence of the Bomb.
Wisely focusing on a single historical event (the nuclear showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union that culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis), Potter multiples its meaning as it applies to her various characters. For 17-year-old Ginger (Elle Fanning), born in the shadow of Hiroshima, it's both a very real threat and a symbol on which to project her discontent with the world, as she and best friend, Rosa (Alice Englert), born on the same day and thus into the same historical circumstances, start going to meetings and marches in their London neighborhood. The political and the personal aren't only continually mirrored in Ginger & Rosa, they're often at war. Several models of political activism confront Ginger, from her father's inflexible pacifist principles, which led him to a jail sentence for being a conscientious objector during World War II, to more pragmatic family friends, who better understand the necessary balance between social agitation and family life.
In fact, Ginger's father's inflexibility is what leads to the majority of misery for her family. While his sentiments are undeniably noble, his application of these principles to his own domestic life means he treats his wife miserably, his daughter with cold respect, and thinks nothing about taking Rosa as his lover, refusing to apologize for the act and throwing the whole family into turmoil. The effect on Ginger, both drawn to her father as an idealistic, poetic creature, and ultimately suffering a keen sense of betrayal at his hands, is to increase her isolation, a sense of loneliness that finds its outlet in her near-obsessive anti-nuclear protesting, and its chilling visual expression in an endless succession of blurred-background close-ups with Fanning's sad, confused face poking out between perfectly symmetrical strands of orange hair. Only a few early moments of escape, all predicated on motion (car rides, boat trips) and presented as dizzily impressionistic whirls, provide any escape for either Ginger—or the viewer—from the film's claustrophobic world.
Potter packs so much detail and thematic heft into 90-minute films that, given her elliptical and often unemphatic presentation, feel tantalizing but never overstuffed. The one moment when she seems to abandon her restraint is in her endings, too often reaching for an epiphany not always adequately supported by what came prior. In her 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, the titular character's self-revelation of freedom seems too grand a gesture to cap the rather narrow glimpses we've been given of her half-millennium life. A similarly revelatory gesture nearly undoes Ginger & Rosa, seeming at first like a too-neat coming to terms with the world on the heroine's part. But we eventually come to understand Ginger's altered worldview as tentative, as a first step toward an adult understanding of what life is and the way we need to cope in order to live it. If it still seems like something of a misstep, the one element in the film that doesn't quite gel, it finally does little to detract from what until that point had been not only a remarkable work, but an object lesson to any director tempted to undertake the dangerous task of setting their movie in the 1960s.