Wednesday, 17 October 2012

GFT programme note: Ginger & Rosa


Please note this article contains spoilers

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
                                                T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

Though T.S. Eliot published The Hollow Men long before the Manhattan Project completed work on the world’s first fission bomb, the poem’s final stanza is oft-quoted in relation to fears of nuclear destruction. To offer a single example from popular culture, the above lines appear as an epigraph to Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach, filmed two years later with Stanley Kramer in the director’s chair and Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner amongst its stars. On the Beach depicts an Earth decimated by nuclear war, with the northern hemisphere reduced to rubble and bones, and the last pockets of humanity (in Australia and other lower-latitude countries) left choosing between slow death by radioactive fallout or a quick demise via a government-provided suicide pill. There is no rescue, no deus ex machina saviour to restore hope, just a quiet acceptance of mankind’s self-made fate. In the context of the Cold War, with the potential horrors of total nuclear annihilation all-too-real thanks to MAD-logic and diplomatic deadlock, On the Beach offered a sobering vision of what was at stake.

Ginger & Rosa opens with its own stark reminder of nuclear warfare’s apocalyptic potential, using grainy footage of mushroom clouds and Hiroshima’s blasted landscape to succinctly establish the period’s perils. The wasteland scenes swiftly segue to a pristine London hospital, where two babies are born in parallel beds, one named Ginger, one named Rosa – literally entering the world in the shadow of nuclear war. The narrative then shifts forward to 1962, to the peak of atomic uncertainty, as the Cuban missile crisis threatens to make the gist of Shute’s fiction a terrible reality. Now aged sixteen, Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) approach adulthood in a world of infinite, unbearable insecurity. Writer/director Sally Potter has described the period as ‘a transitional moment where people didn't know what was coming next’[1], a description applicable to both the historical era in which the film is set and the particular stage of life its titular duo are in the midst of navigating. Though in some ways both girls seem older than their years (as if their coming-of-age has been hastened by the gravitas of the political climate they inhabit), Potter provides frequent reminders of childhood: for instance, when Ginger moves in with her father, the first things that are unpacked are her teddy bears, which she arranges carefully on her new bed. The casting of Fanning in the part, just thirteen-years-old at the time of filming, similarly emphasises the character’s youth.

Ginger is more sensitive to the potential atomic danger than the more blas̩ Rosa, penning poetry on the subject and embracing the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. To Ginger, nuclear war is an impossible-to-ignore weight, a dread drilled deeper with every ominous wireless announcement (an early scene has Ginger overhear a calmly-delivered but chilling news report, in which a polite RP accent recites estimates for the number of expected casualties should missiles ever launch: 100 million dead in the USA, 115 million dead in Europe, and so on). But Ginger is more than the sum of her nuclear fears. Fiery annihilation may be the most universally-shared of her concerns, but it is accompanied by a host of more personal growing pains and upsets Рmost profoundly, the burden of concealing the illicit relationship that develops between her father Roland (Alessandro Nivola) and the teenage Rosa.

When Roland and Rosa have sex on-board Roland’s boat, Ginger stifles sobs in the cabin next door, quietly reading The Hollow Men aloud as if seeking comfort in Eliot’s doom-laden lines. As she hesitantly repeats ‘this is the way the world ends’ over the upsetting sounds emanating through the cabin wall, the sadness caused by her father’s actions seems to fuse with her omnipresent fears of nuclear destruction, forming a single ball of confusion and distress. Her bottled-up hurt is subsequently given a visual analogue in one of the film’s few school scenes, when a science experiment ends with an explosive chemical reaction inside a test tube. The tube’s miniature, contained blast seems to reflect both Ginger's internalised pain and the much larger explosive threat that otherwise preoccupies her thoughts. ‘I’ll explode if I say it!’ Ginger later cries when pushed to divulge her unpleasant secret, her words further merging the two traumas. Consequently, the film’s working title, Bomb, seems as much a descriptor of Ginger’s emotional maelstrom as it is a reference to an actual A-bomb.[2]

This synthesis of the personal and the political is a dynamic Potter has utilised before: for example, Yes (2004), in which a romance is tested by post-9/11 anti-Muslim sentiments, or The Man Who Cried (2000), set against an inter-war backdrop of anti-Jewish pogroms and the rise of Nazism. In Ginger & Rosa, the director ‘wanted to make a film about how we are all in the world and the world is in us. The most personal events, in family life [and] friendship, are echoed by the most extraordinarily huge events in the world.’[3] As Ginger’s story ends – not with a bang, but a whispered contemplation of what the future might hold – bombs both literal (the superpowers’ stockpiled warheads) and figurative (Ginger’s clenched inner pain) remain un-defused. But in her parting message of forgiveness and love, there is hope.

Christopher Buckle
Researcher and journalist
October 2012

[1] Quoted in Shoshana Greenberg (2012) 'Transitional Moments: Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa at the New York Film Festival', The Huffington Post, accessed 15/10/12 at

[2] Catherine Shoard (2012) 'Ginger & Rosa - Review', The Guardian, accessed 15/10/12 at

[3] Mark Olsen (2012) 'Elle Fanning tears up on screen and off with Ginger and Rosa', LA Times, accessed 15/10/12 at

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