- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

“The Ballad of Jack and Rose” is a fall-from-Eden fable from writer-director Rebecca Miller, who has an inherited clutch on big ideas — she’s the daughter of the late playwright Arthur Miller — but can’t quite close the deal on a great film.

Her previous effort, 2002’s “Personal Velocity,” was a meditation on modern American womanhood condensed into three short, spindly stories whose vague interlinking was supposed to add up to something profound. Again, not quite.

“The Ballad of Jack and Rose” stars her husband, the always marvelous Daniel Day-Lewis, as a stalwart leftover of a ‘60s commune located on an unnamed island off the East Coast of the United States. (It was filmed on Prince Edward Island, and cinematographer Ellen Kuras has her way with its salt air and sunlight.)

In fact, Jack Slavin is the sole remaining adult occupant of the eco-friendly collective. The only other resident is his teenage daughter Rose (Camilla Belle), whom he keeps locked in an insalubriously isolated, if productive, state of throbbing innocence. She talks of suicide as the only rational alternative to life without her father and will throw away her virginity like a down-lined parka in high summer.

When the film opens, in 1986, father and daughter are lying side by side under a beautiful sky, the first hint of a too literally Oedipal subtext that does violence to the rest of the movie. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s rendition of “I Put a Spell on You” is cranking; a bevy of Bob Dylan songs will fill out the soundtrack for maximum countercultural vibe.

Jack, more an ascetic and scientific utopian than a free-love hippie, is ailing from a heart condition. (Mr. Day-Lewis dropped a significant amount of weight for the part; his face here is gaunt, his torso a concavity.) He’s nearly always in a Petersham greatcoat and boater’s hat and does righteous battle with a local development company headed by Beau Bridges’ bourgeois Marty Rance.

To his daughter’s horror, Jack hastily brings his part-time mainland lover, Kathleen (an underused Catherine Keener), into their marshy paradise. This, he reasons, is the responsible thing to do, given his imminent departure. He turns out to be right — but not quite in the way he intended.

“The Ballad” is two distinct songs — one of Jack’s demise, the other of Rose’s ascent into self-sufficiency.

Kathleen, dissolute but practical, brings along her two sons (from different fathers): the slender, Byronic Thaddeus (Paul Dano) and the safer, chubbier Rodney (Ryan McDonald). Thaddeus, in turn, invites the dangerous Red Berry (Jena Malone, edgy and bleach-blond) onto the island, exposing Rose to the peril and pull of unsupervised adolescence.

Miss Belle, a mere 18, is in superb control of Rose’s peculiar sense of restrained expressiveness and physical discovery.

Miss Miller nearly throws out her back with the weighty biblical allusions in “The Ballad.” At one point, a literal snake is let loose in the garden. The real snake, however, is not Thaddeus or Red or sexual awakening, but the demon progress, which finally overcomes the quixotic Jack.

However much it may subvert Miss Miller’s politics, you’ll notice that the most valuable thing Jack has to offer his incorruptible daughter is a piece of gold-mine property. And Miss Miller’s eventual vision of an independent moral life is something available only to rich New Englanders.

How appropriate, perhaps, for a story about a failed utopia.

***

TITLE: “The Ballad of Jack and Rose”

RATING: R (Profanity; sexual content; drug references)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Rebecca Miller. Produced by Lemore Syvan. Cinematography by Ellen Kuras. Original music by Michael Rohatyn.

RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.ifcfilms.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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