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On the Brink

by Ross Douthat

A review of Ginger and Rosa

Ginger and Rosa, an intense little coming-of-age drama from the British director Sally Potter, begins with three births: The mushroom cloud goes up over Hiroshima, ushering in the nuclear age, and at the same moment two girls are born in London, one fair and one dark, as their mothers clutch at one another from parallel delivery beds.

A few minutes of screen time move us 17 years forward, to 1962. The girls are our title characters, growing up fast friends in the dinginess of postwar Britain, sharing smokes and hitchhiking, making out with boys in alleyways and exasperating their mothers. Ginger, played by Elle Fanning, has a bursting smile and hair like flame, and she wears her intellectual ambitions on her sleeve — she reads T. S. Eliot and Simone de Beauvoir and wants to save the world from nuclear war. (It is the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis.) Rosa, played by Alice Englert, is earthy and intense, with a religious streak and a transparent eagerness for romance.

At first the movie makes you expect a variation on An Education, the art-house hit from several years ago that featured Carey Mulligan as a British schoolgirl seduced by an older businessman. The era is the same, and so is the setup — girls on the verge of womanhood, chafing against their parents, in a fog-bound, still-conservative country on the verge of social revolution.

But whereas An Education was all about forsaking one’s family, at least temporarily, for the promises and temptations of a wider world, in Ginger and Rosa the domestic sphere is the place where the real action happens, and where a girl’s illusions about life and men — men, especially — end up being shattered.

That heroine is Ginger, through whose sea-blue eyes we watch the story unfold. Her family seems working-class at first, but they’re actually bohemians, whose penury goes hand in hand with their radical politics. Her mother (Christina Hendricks of Mad Men, bravely struggling with an English accent) is a painter, or rather a former painter, having given up her art to raise her daughter. Her father, the dashing Roland (Alessandro Nivola), is a pacifist academic who was jailed for conscientious objection during World War II. Their social circle includes two gay “uncles” (Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt) and their American friend, a bluestocking of the old school played by Annette Bening, who tries to take Ginger under her wing.

Theirs is a world where joining an anti-nuclear march seems like a natural part of growing up, and where Roland’s grinning response to his daughter’s activism — “You’re a born radical” — is the highest compliment a parent can pay. But it’s also a world where the buzzwords of radicalism double as justifications for a monstrous kind of narcissism.

The narcissist is Roland — a martyr for pacifism, a scourge of conventional thinking and weak-mindedness, an idol to his dazzled daughter, and, above all, a brute. He’s to radicalism what John F. Kennedy (heard on the radio throughout the film) was to liberalism: a compulsive womanizer for whom politics, and his sacrifices on its behalf, offers a kind of indulgence capable of covering over every other sin. For the sake of the cause, he expects his wife to be his domestic drudge; for the sake of “autonomy,” he expects her to tolerate his philandering; for the sake of his own liberation from conventional morality, he expects his daughter to accept . . . well, I’ll leave it to the film itself to reveal what he expects his daughter to accept — though it’s clear enough in the first act what kind of twist Potter has in mind. That predictability is a weakness, and not a small one: There is not enough misdirection in Ginger and Rosa, not enough concealment and surprise, and the dénouement is talky and thudding, with all the major characters crowded in a room shouting at each other, like a stage play transposed clumsily to the screen.

But the work that Fanning and Nivola — the poised young talent and the charismatic pro — do together redeems many of the movie’s flaws. Indeed, as large as the titular friendship looms, as the story moves along it feels more like a father-daughter tale than anything else: not a pair of friends’ awakening to adult experience so much as a daughter’s education in the ways that adults can wreck their children’s lives — and others’ along with them.

That education doesn’t cast a particularly flattering light on the radicalism that Ginger and Roland have in common, but neither does it discredit it outright. What the movie suggests, instead, is that there are crimes too intimate to have any political solution, and tyrannies that no revolution will ever overthrow.

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