There’s a short, fast, terrifying ride with boys in the middle of the movie Ginger & Rosa. Ginger and Rosa are late teenagers: These are their very last moments as girls. They’re hitchhiking—it’s England in 1962, when nuclear war is threatening and feminism and existentialism and jazz are rising—and the two girls pile without a word into the car of two older boys. The driver is recklessly show-offy, then a little maniacal. Nobody speaks. The ride lasts not even a minute on this isolated road, the car going faster and faster until the girls finally have to get loose, holding hands as they manage to escape and run off. We never see these boys again in this movie. But for that minute, the danger feels almost unbearably great, and of every type, for these painfully young women. This intensity is when Ginger & Rosa is at its best—its most Sally Potter–esque.
Potter directed Ginger & Rosa but made her reputation with the wild, gorgeous movie Orlando in 1992, based on the writings of Virginia Woolf and introducing an actress named Tilda Swinton to the wider world. Ginger & Rosa is no Orlando. It’s inordinately handsome, essentially flawless in its acting, cinematography, casting, and design, but ultimately it’s a melodrama that telegraphs its plot in the first frames.
Still, if you wanted to create a demonstration of the heartbreakingly many ways in which women turn against each other while forgiving even the worst behavior of the men in their lives, this is it in a beautiful nutshell. Ginger and Rosa are the putative subjects, but Ginger’s father, Roland, is the pivot point for all the action. Ginger and Rosa admire him: He was a pacifist, a World War II conscientious objector who was jailed, but his wife, Natalie (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks), found a domestic jail of her own. What makes the movie one you should watch rather than skip are Elle Fanning’s majesty as Ginger plus supporting performances by Annette Bening, Timothy Spall, and Oliver Platt. Just don’t expect Woolfian proportions.