British filmmaker Sally Potter gained worldwide attention with her 1992 film Orlando. Like all of her movies, it was unconventional in its story and structure. Her new film, Ginger & Rosa, is more realistic and direct.
It's also got a high-profile cast that includes Annette Bening, Oliver Platt, Christina Hendricks and young Elle Fanning. They all play Britons during the fateful Cold War year of 1962, when the Cuban missile crisis had the world thinking the unthinkable: That a nuclear war was about to begin between the Soviet Union and the United States.
A Story From Her Past
Potter was just 13 that summer, and she remembers being haunted throughout her childhood by the images of nuclear bombs exploding in the final days of World War II. Such an image is the first thing we see in Ginger & Rosa.
Banning the bomb became the focus of large demonstrations and protests in Britain during the era. Potter depicts some of the marches and sit-in protests at missile bases in the film from her own experience.
"I think the first ban-the-bomb march, from Aldermaston missile base to London, I went on with my younger brother and my mother," she says.
Potter's dad and her grandparents were all there, too — it was a movement, she says, that had widespread multigenerational and family participation.
The relationships between parents and children figure prominently in Ginger & Rosa, but Potter says the film is not really autobiographical. She says she wanted to dramatize the connection between the personal and the political, "to make a link between the kind of crises and real difficulties that people face and experience most vividly in their personal life with global crises that sometimes seem very far away and impossible even to connect with."
Bonds Between Women
The crises closer to home in the film run from best friends Ginger and Rosa trying to figure out what to do with their lives (Be a poet? Date an older man?), to figuring out what to wear to the demonstration and whether they'll meet any boys, to the thornier problems of coping with their parents' separation and divorce.
Hendricks, the calculating office manager from Mad Men, plays Ginger's mother. She tells Ginger she wants to save the girl from repeating the mistakes she made, like getting married as a teen to a husband who, despite being a handsome radical once imprisoned for his pacifism, seems all-too-typical of women's complaints about men of that era. He also "never lifted a finger to help with anything."
Ginger, in time-honored response, screams that she'll never be like her mother.
Of course, it's not that simple or easy, as Potter often demonstrates in her films. Her hallmark is the focus on relationships between women. It may be lifelong friendships like the one between Ginger and Rosa's mothers, the chaotic feelings between mother and daughter, or just the mercurial intensity of friendships between young women.
Girls, From Different Times
Despite claims that Ginger & Rosa is not autobiographical, Potter had Fanning — the much-admired teenage actress who plays Ginger — dye her blond hair red, like Potter's. "It was my first movie not as a blonde," Fanning says.
Fanning was 13 when she made the film, Potter's age at her first ban-the-bomb march. Fanning says she owes a lot to Potter, who shared memories of life at that time and age.
"She went on the marches when she was young, so she had a lot of pictures from that," Fanning says. "Also, she was a teenage girl — at one time — so she knows what that's like, to have a best friend and to have sort of a secret language. I think that girls are very specific in that way, where they trust each other SO much."
Fanning says she established a close bond with Potter, who always seems to earn high praise for her collaborative relationships with the crew and the cast.
A Filmmaker Reinvents Her Style
Potter's latest film proceeds in a different way in terms of style and storytelling from her past work.
Orlando, for instance, featured actors talking straight into the camera. Potter's cross-cultural love story Yes had the actors delivering their lines in iambic pentameter. And Rage consisted entirely of dramatic monologues staged to look like interviews on a cellphone camera; the film was even released on the iPhone. Potter says she wrote the script of Ginger & Rosa with "accessibility" in mind. It was a deliberate strategy to avoid the filmmaking touches of her previous work.
"It's always a good principle to reinvent and to be prepared to throw away the things that you cling to as being your identity," she says. "And I don't just mean this in films; I mean this in life. We're not a set of habits. And I think sometimes to return to kind of first principles of pure intention, and be prepared to throw away your signature, if you like, can be incredibly liberating. It's quite terrifying, but very liberating, too. And in that way one finds new things to do."
A 'Kitchen-Sink Drama' Made New
This time the new thing to do turned out to be something old, says poet and critic Sophie Mayer, author of a book on Potter's films. Mayer says Ginger & Rosa draws on the realist style that swept onto British stage and screen productions, as well as literature and painting, in the period this film depicts.
"It seems very familiar to us now, but at the time it was a huge shock to depict people in their kitchens," Mayer says. "You know, you use the phrase 'kitchen sink drama' to dismiss things, but until that point, people hadn't been seen in their kitchens. There was no consciousness in film of that kind of domestic life."
There was also no consciousness of the politics of domestic life — the silent suffering for women such as Ginger's mother in the film. It's the silence of that generation of women in 1962 who could not know they were on the cusp of feminism's reawakening, and it was on Potter's mind as she wrote the script for Ginger & Rosa.
"When my mother died in 2010, I remembered — in a way, painfully — the struggles of her and the women of her generation, and [I] experienced them as ... silent partners in the beginning of the time of change in the '60s," Potter says. "Women, who, in many ways, were sacrificed for that change."
It's a sacrifice Potter acknowledges at the end of Ginger & Rosa with a dedication to her mother.