Ballad of Jack and Rose: Rebecca Miller Directs her Husband-Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, Camilla Belle

“The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” the first artistic collaboration of writer-director Rebecca Miller and actor-husband Daniel Day-Lewis is a decidedly mixed bag: A well-intentioned, superbly-acted father-daughter melodrama that begins well but increasingly gets sentimental, rambling, and diffuse.

Set in 1986, it’s the tale of Jack (Day-Lewis), a severe, middle-aged man who lives on the site of his abandoned island commune with his 16-year-old daughter, Rose (Camilla Belle). Since the breakup of the commune, Jack has sheltered Rose completely from the influences of the outside world. However, his fatal illness and Rose’s emerging womanhood pose troubling questions for Jack, forcing him to reassess his life.

Jack, a man whose whole life has been motivated by environmentalism, Jack now rages at those who do not share his philosophy, such as nemesis developer Marty Rance (Beau Bridges), who is building a housing tract on the edge of his property.

When Jack invites his girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener) and her sons Rodney (Ryan McDonald) and Thaddius (Paul Dano) to live with them, Rose feels betrayed. The situation quickly becomes precarious, when Rose acts out wildly, creating chaos. As everything flies out of control, Jack finds himself trapped in an impossible place, forced to take action.

With her third feature, Rebecca Miller (“Angela,” “Personal Velocity”) has created an intermittently powerful and sporadically poetic film about a man who has cut himself off from the world that refuses to live up to his ideals, and a young girl’s sensual coming-of-age. A familiar story with some mythic and universal elements, “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” is told with a contemporary sensibility and shot in a realistic way.

The film strives to be a multi-level yarn. On one level, “Ballad” is the story of the unraveling of Jack, as his entire life comes apart. On another, it’s about the ascent of Rose, as she establishes an identity that’s separate from her father’s. The film is marked by tonal shifts, dealing with a serio and poignant subject matter that veers (not always convincingly) into a comedic mode.

The subtext of the movie is richer and more interesting that its text. “Ballad” concerns, among other issues, an intense love that can deform and damage people, but it’s also about forgiveness and redemption.

Also interesting is Miller’s view of the younger generationrepresented by Rose, Rodney, Thaddius and Red Berry, who try to handle the burdens their families have placed on them as best they can, and at the same time move on with their lives.
Miller’s philosophy is ultimately upbeat, suggesting that youth not only survives, but also gathers new knowledge that goes beyond that of their parents. History moves forward and upward, in a spiral, circling way, rather than linear and progressive one.

What Jack and Rose are fighting for is land ands the symbolic values that it bears. The place represents a kind of idealism that’s rare today, but prevails in the more idealistic 1960s. The film’s philosophy is upbeat in the sense that people can recreate themselves, albeit in small, not radical ways, that they can redefine themselves and forge new personalities vis–vis those of their elders.

The father and daughter live on an abandoned commune on an island off the East Coast. The uniquely intimate relationship between them is forged in isolation from the outside world.

Miller wants to explore the feeling and knowledge of youths that someone dear to them, particularly parents, is going to die, and how they “prepare” (or don’t) for the event, how they almost mourn them in advance. She seems equally intrigued by the wild hopefulness of youth, who could find a new way of living.
Jack’s character is complex and demanding, an angry Utopian with a craving for order on the one hand, and on the other, an Anarchist’s need to destroy it. He is also a man of extremes, going from living in a commune to having no interaction with anyone except his daughter. The film never addresses explicitly why the commune broke up. However, Jack’s need to control every situation is probably what drove the other members of his commune away. A true utopian, Jack couldn’t accept the failures of his fellow members.

Monstrous yet lovable, Jack has high moral standards that are too high for the real world. He has isolated his daughter so that he can control her intake of the modern world. He purposefully keeps her out of what he perceived as a toxic exterior world. Thus, when first seen, Rose is completely un-socialized and has no perspective on relationships.

The film is set on Prince Edward Island; off the east coast of Canada, near New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, a particular place that also has a slightly universal feel to it.
Miller shot “Ballad” in sequence on a self-contained, stunningly beautiful location. The advantages of shooting the film in continuity were that everyone, in front of and behind the camera, always knew where they were in the story.

Miller has made her previous films with cinematographer Ellen Kuras, and both films have won prizes for cinematography at Sundance. Jointly, Miller and Kuras bring to the film a poetic and painterly sensibility.

Having shot her last film, “Personal Velocity,” on digital video, Miller was impressed by the freedom it allowed. Miller and Kuras elected to use Super-16mm instead of 35mm in order to have the flexibility of smaller cameras. They often worked with two cameras at once, and on occasion used this method to combine several scenes into one long take.

For the crucial role of Rose, Miller auditioned 400 girls before casting Camilla Belle (A Little Princess). Camilla has purity about her; one believes she could have lived untouched by the world around her.

Both Day-Lewis and Belle have to hit many various emotional notes. Day-Lewis is a terrific actor, so it’s no surprise that he meets the challenge (Miller claims that she has not written Jack’s part for him). The big revelation is Belle, who begins as a docile beauty, then gradually becomes a passionate person dedicated to her own beliefs. Rose’s separation from her father, enable her to step out of the mirror and become a more complete person in the course of the narrative.

Correspondingly, Rose’s physical beauty undergoes significant changes. Early on in the film, Rose flaunts a certain angelic quality, which we associate with hippies and flower children. When Rose decides to cut her hair, it is a profound form of disfigurement, especially to Jack; the long hair signified the 1970s ideal of female perfection.

An original, Rose follows her own rules and has no boundaries. She does whatever she wants to do, and nothing stops her, because she has nothing to compare her life to. And she’s free with her body as well, but in a completely innocent way.

The crisis that propels “The Ballad” is Jack’s awareness that he’s falling in love with his daughter. He realizes this with horror, and a terrible cloud gathers within him–that’s the moment he decides to take action.

The film is structured as a triangle, with Jack’s lover, Kathleen (Catherine Keener) as the third major part. When Jack is in crisis, he goes across the water and asks her to come live with him. Kathleen’s arrangement with Jack is financial as well as emotional; it’s clear that she yearns for the kind of love Jack is incapable of. The commune is not really her kind of comfort zone, and she’s had a hard road in her life.

Kathleen is making a pact with Jack: no matter what, they are going to make it work. But Kathleen also has flaws: she is obsessed with appearance, talking about how clear her son’s skin is. She’s the type of woman who puts on lipstick when she sees a man. Jack likes Kathleen and he needs her, but his relationship with her is based on a power struggle. Jack’s power is in the form of money. Born with money, Jack despises it but he also uses it as a weapon and a way of controlling people.

In 1995, she wrote and directed her first feature film Angela, which won the Gotham Award. Miller’s second feature, “Personal Velocity,” is composed of three short films starring Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, and Fairuza Balk. Each story is based on a chapter from Miller’s literary debut, a collection of short stories of the same name published by Grove Press in 2001. Personal Velocity won the Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize and the Excellence in Cinematography Award at the 2002 Sundance Festival.

Miller’s previous film were about women, but with “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,’ her most accomplished film to date, she has created a film with strong female and male roles. What links this feature to Miller’s former work is her interest in characters that are drifting out of control, and while they see it happening, they try to change things before they happen.

Miller (the daughter of the late playwright Arthur Miller) continues to draw inspiration from literary sources, but she is also improving as a director who’s more in command of film’s visual and technical properties.

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