D: Rebecca Miller / 107m
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Camilla Belle, Catherine Keener, Ryan McDonald, Paul Dano, Jason Lee, Beau Bridges, Jena Malone, Susannah Thompson
When Daniel Day-Lewis announced his retirement from acting recently, it’s likely that many of us felt the need to revisit one of his movies and remind ourselves of what a prodigious acting talent he possesses. That being said, it’s unlikely that anyone decided to watch The Ballad of Jack and Rose, a somewhat dour, slow-paced drama that he made between Gangs of New York (2002) and There Will Be Blood (2007). It’s a movie that benefits from Day-Lewis’s usual commitment to his roles, but aside from a grating Scottish-US accent and obvious weight loss late on, his role as Jack is perhaps his most low-key performance to date.
The movie is set in 1986 on an island off the East Coast of America (actually Prince Edward Island). Jack (Day-Lewis) is an environmentalist who first came to the island in 1967 when it was home to a hippie commune. Now, only Jack and his teenage daughter, Rose (Belle) live at the commune, which is largely rundown. Jack has a heart problem, and is trying to prepare Belle so that she can move on from the island and begin living her adult life. But Belle is resistant to the idea, and tells Jack that when he dies she will commit suicide because she doesn’t want to live without him. Looking for another way of getting Belle to interact with the wider world, Jack arranges for the woman he sees on the mainland, Kathleen (Keener), to come live on the island with them, and to bring her two children, Rodney (McDonald) and Thaddius (Dano), with her.
Their arrival upsets Belle immensely, and she withdraws from Jack while finding a friend in Rodney. Jack has a mission of his own to deal with, though, in the form of property developer Marty Rance (Bridges), who is building several houses on an adjoining part of the island. Jack is adamant that one of the houses is being built on government protected wetland, and he does his best to halt the building work. Meanwhile, the adjustments that everyone is having to make are beginning to cause friction. Rose’s feelings become murderous towards Kathleen while she also tries to get Rodney to sleep with her. He rebuffs her, and though Rose doesn’t like him, she turns to Thaddius. When Jack realises what she’s done he becomes angry with her, and tells Thaddius he has to leave the next day. But that night, an incident happens that causes Jack to rethink things in relation to Kathleen’s presence on the island, and following a further incident, his relationship with Belle.
For many, The Ballad of Jack and Rose will be about the performances rather than the story, with particular attention paid to Day-Lewis and Belle’s easy chemistry. After so many roles where Day-Lewis has been required to access his more macho side, seeing him here in a more vulnerable and sympathetic role acts as a reminder of both his range and his skill as an actor. Jack is a man of conviction who lacks self-doubt in the decisions he makes. And if Rose ever questions one of his decisions, his reply is the same: “new chapter”. He refers to the arrival of Kathleen and her sons as an experiment, but this is a sop to Rose’s animosity towards the idea, and he expects everything to go well without really thinking through the potential consequences. Day-Lewis portrays Jack’s oblique, trusting nature with a quiet yet detached authority that’s in keeping with the character’s attitude to those around him. He’s an instigator and a promoter but aside from Rose, he keeps himself aloof from other people. Even with Kathleen there’s a detachment that refuses to take her feelings about being on the island into consideration.
As Rose, Belle excels as Jack’s conflicted, emotionally inexperienced daughter whose need for his attention has grown into something unhealthy. Early on there are hints that Rose has inappropriate feelings for her father, but thanks to Belle’s ability to mask her character’s feelings whenever Rose is challenged about her behaviour, any suspicions remain fleeting. Her attraction for Rodney arises out of sexual jealousy, and her subsequent liaison with Thaddius is borne out of need and Rose’s capricious nature. Rose is very similar to her father in that she has assimilated his lack of foresight, and inability to consider any negative consequences for his actions. As such, she operates with no regard for other people’s feelings, and if she wants to punish him, even her father’s. As Rodney says to Rose at one point, “You’re innocent. Innocent people are just dangerous.” Belle’s portrayal of Rose as an emotionally stunted young woman whose development has stalled thanks to living in virtual isolation with her father is earnest and sagacious; it’s a shame her career hasn’t been more successful.
Other than McDonald’s sympathetic turn as Rodney, the rest of the performances aren’t as well crafted as those of Day-Lewis and Belle, but that’s due to Miller’s script and the ways in which she loses interest in them, picks them up, and then forgets all about them again. Miller’s script loses its focus from time to time, and as a result, it’s not as gripping in places as it might have been, and some of the arguments between Jack and Rose sound like the petulant exchanges you’d expect from teenagers. In the end, Miller resolves everything a little too neatly and in doing so requires Jack to make a complete volte face, something that Day-Lewis manages somehow to make convincing – even though in dramatic terms it isn’t. These and other aspects of the script’s construction stop the movie from being as compelling as it should be, and allied with Miller’s erratic framing, make this a movie experience that only partially succeeds in its somewhat limited ambitions.
Rating: 6/10 – if The Ballad of Jack and Rose had remained a two-hander throughout then it might have been able to offer better rewards for its audience, but as it is, it falls short of being entirely involving; too many distractions rob the movie of any lasting impact, leaving Day-Lewis and Belle’s contributions and Ellen Kuras’ splendid cinematography to save the day. (6/31)