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Photograph by Brigitte Lacombe

Rose Style: Sixteen-year-old Rose (Camilla Belle) starts to fall for her hippie patriarch dad (Daniel Day-Lewis) in 'The Ballad of Jack and Rose.'

Island Fever

A modern Prospero rules a crumbling commune in 'The Ballad of Jack and Rose'

By Richard von Busack

REBECCA MILLER surpasses her on-again, off-again Personal Velocity with the far more impressive Ballad of Jack and Rose. In the middle of the Reagan years, a terminally ill father, Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis), is planning his daughter's future. He lives alone with 16-year-old Rose (Camilla Belle). Their home is a commune, abandoned by its settlers. The two have stayed, helped out by Jack's inherited wealth. Rose's mother is long gone, leaving behind only a trail of postcards. The island is under pressure by a developer (a very self-satisfied Beau Bridges). But Jack's main problem is his daughter. As she grows, her adoration is turning from filial to carnal.

In a coldly businesslike move, Jack ships in his casual mistress, Kathleen (Catherine Keener), from the mainland. She brings her children from previous trysts with her. One is a shrewd hulking boy named Rodney (Ryan McDonald), who is likely gay; the other is a feral troublemaker (Paul Dano). The characters play out the falling apart of 1960s dreams, probing how the search for personal freedom conflicts with the group imperative. The hardest to predict of the five is the angry, intruded-upon Rose. As Rodney says, she is completely innocent—in a word, dangerous.

There's a clumsy coda in which Miller seems to be apologizing to the communal movement for perhaps slandering it. You appreciate her sensitivity, while wishing she could have expressed this thought more elegantly. Yet Miller's storytelling in pictures has improved since Personal Velocity. The images of the island's coast, estuary and rich flower gardens, twining around an abandoned brass bed frame, have the rustic charm and realism that Off the Map lacks.

As the hippie lord of the island, Day-Lewis (the director's husband) is fascinatingly arrogant, with his Scots accent and tribal tattoos; the performance is full of both Olivier-like felineness and cruel force. Glib journalists have mocked Day-Lewis for having taken a sabbatical to learn shoemaking. Maybe exposure to that craft and its discipline gave him something as an actor—a chance to reclaim himself, working a necessary trade, when he might have had his doubts about the necessity of movies. Look at the coming attractions and tell me how many of those films look necessary.

That said, Jack's prediction that "there's going to be nothing left of this country but suburbs and ghettos" seems a little too early for 1986. Yet it is easy to believe Jack's troubles. Rose is such a portrait of clear-eyed, brave innocence that she seems almost clean enough to purify even incest. I also like the way the movie calls an anarchist's bluff—would a man in complete opposition to society be ready to break the most serious taboo?

Day-Lewis gives strength to this allegorical approach to the problem of the unsettling of America. And the soundtrack (some just-right Dylan, some John Mayall) keeps the film what it is called: a ballad, a tragic story that Miller tells with well-chosen words and beautiful symbolism.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose (R; 111 min.), directed and written by Rebecca Miller, photographed by Ellen Kuras and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Catherine Keener and Camilla Belle, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the March 30-April 5, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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