Twenty years ago British filmmaker Sally Potter’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ firmly established her as a cinematic force to reckon with. Rooted in a magnificent performance by the great Tilda Swinton, ‘Orlando’ was as much a treat for the eyes with its lush and stunning visual design as it was for the mind, challenging the viewer to ponder whether men experience the world – and love – in the same way that women do. In the canon of LGBT films, ‘Orlando’ ranks high in its queerness quotient: the casting of openly gay raconteur Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I, a female actress playing both the male and female halves of the same character, a soundtrack by queer artists David Motion and Jimmy Sommerville, and, of course, the unabashed queerness of the subject matter. But at the heart of it, ‘Orlando’ was about a person struggling to find meaning and identity in a world that feels strange and estranged.
The titular Ginger in Potter’s new film ‘Ginger & Rosa’ has the same existential struggle except this time she is placed in 1962 London. Ginger and her best friend Rosa are teenagers growing up in working class London. They are inseparable even in their pursuit of new experiences, sexual or otherwise, until one day they must confront the tragic event that creates a fissure between them and tears their families apart. The Cuban missile crisis provides the backdrop to this story as Ginger becomes more and more obsessed with the fear that “the world is going to end any day now.” However, it’s Ginger’s denial and unpreparedness to deal with her own personal world going up in flames that is the crux of this movie. ‘Ginger & Rosa’ is a searing critique of adults that inhabit Ginger’s world. Adults who simultaneously educate and confuse her, like her father who is one moment a man of strong political convictions and the next a self-serving man without any morals. In the end when Ginger screams, “I feel like I’m going to explode” it may seem out of character or laughable but it’s simply her rage at the failure of these adults to prevent the ticking bomb that is Ginger from going off.
An extraordinarily intelligent film, ‘Ginger & Rosa’, much like ‘Orlando’, is rooted in a brilliant performance by Elle Fanning as Ginger. She was only fourteen years old when she worked on this film but the level of gravitas and maturity she channels through Ginger is nothing short of miraculous. Christina Hendricks (Joan from ‘Mad Men’) and Alessandro Nivola are electric as Ginger’s parents, and newcomer Alice Englert is superb as the simultaneously naïve and seductive Rosa. Sadly, ‘Ginger & Rosa’ has been playing in select cities on limited release so your best bet is to catch it on DVD or online streaming. Make it a double feature with ‘Orlando’ and marvel at the phenomenon that is Sally Potter.