Rebecca Miller has an exquisite pedigree, for she's the daughter of the righteous dramatist and moral stalwart Arthur Miller and his post-Marilyn wife Inge Morath, a globetrotting photographer and Continental of the old school. After growing up in New England with her parents, Rebecca went to Yale and studied art. She showed sculpture in galleries, wrote and published short stories and made short films before she met Daniel Day-Lewis on the set of the movie The Crucible in 1996. Day-Lewis is now her husband, and the two of them live with their kids on some remote moor across the pond, far from the prying paparazzi (and, one might add, the amorous glances of the world's Angelina Jolies and Penelope Cruzes). None of this should be held against her.
Rather, it's to Miller's considerable credit that The Ballad of Jack and Rose follows up on what was so appealing about her last effort, Personal Velocity: bringing a vibrant feminine literary intelligence to the screen. This shouldn't be all that remarkable in this, the year 2005, but it's still worth mentioning because there are shamefully few American women making fiction features, although it's a different story with documentaries.
By contrast, France has been much more hospitable to women filmmakers, which could be a consequence of that nation's generous public support for the arts. Such artists as Agnes Varda, Agnes Jaoui, Marina de Van, Coline Serreau and Claire Denis have done fine work in recent years, Chantal Akerman is still around and Gallic benevolence even has room for the posturing and preposterous art porn of Catherine Breillat.
In the English-speaking world, however, the list of well-known and reasonably successful female filmmakers is discouragingly short: Jane Campion (The Piano, Portrait of a Lady), Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) and Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho) are the first names to come to mind. Other recent arrivals like Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) and Patty Jenkins (Monster) have yet to make their follow-ups. And Kathryn Bigelow, former poster child for women directors in Hollywood, has made two films since 1995's Strange Days, both bombs.
Rebecca Miller is less talented than the extravagantly gifted likes of Campion and Ramsay, and her films are seen by far fewer than those who saw Monster and Boys Don't Cry. In fact, much of the surface appeal of Miller's films can be credited to cinematographer Ellen Kuras, who here captures the low slanting light angles of the northern latitudes with precision and beauty. (Kuras, who also shot Miller's Personal Velocity, has forged a successful career in the truly dick-swinging world of cinematographers, and her résumé includes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blow, I Shot Andy Warhol and a handful of Spike Lee films.)
But despite Miller's relatively modest skills, she's still managed to make two features in the last three years, a faster rate of production than many far-better known male filmmakers. Ultimately, the question of whether Miller's lineage and her marriage help her secure funding is irrelevant; the only thing that really matters is whether her films are worthy. And The Ballad of Jack and Rose is indeed a worthy film, even if it's not, in the end, a particularly successful one.
At the outset of The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Miller's scenario seems rather far-fetched. Over opening shots of the wind-swept vastness of Prince Edward Island, a title informs us that the story we're about to see takes place on "an island off the Eastern coast of the United States" in 1986. When we meet the two titular characters, we might be forgiven for supposing that the eastern island in question is Scotland, since Daniel Day-Lewis's Jack Slavin, an independently wealthy engineer and dying, embittered ex-hippie, speaks with a thick brogue which he's somehow failed to pass to Rose (Camilla Belle), his beautiful, unsocialized and virginal teenaged daughter.
Trouble is brewing in this Electra complex, however. Jack is dying, and he decides to move Kathleen, his new girlfriend from the mainland, into the home in the hope of passing Rose's guardianship over to her. Kathleen, played by the always quirky but here somewhat unconvincing Catherine Keener, is a working-class stiff with two troubled and resentful teen sons of her own. The older of the two is Rodney, a plump, timid and gay hairdresser in training, while the younger is Thaddius, all loutish sexual malice. The young actors in these roles, Ryan McDonald and Paul Dano (who starred in the critically praised L.I.E.), respectively, are exceptional, and it's a little disappointing when events in the film take them off screen.
Meanwhile, the forces of progress, known as luxury real estate developers, are building McMansions on the other side of the island and their representative (Beau Bridges) has his sights set on Jack's spread. To the film's hash of cultural influences, from the Garden of Eden (complete with a literal snake), Electra and Agamemnon and The Brady Bunch, we can add King Lear, as Jack staggers around his heath bemoaning the vanishing of his youthful communitarian dreams and the ruthless encroaching of vulgar progress.
Just as Personal Velocity was composed of three short films, The Ballad of Jack and Rose is essentially composed of three acts. The first and last are wooly and unconvincing sequences between Jack and Rose, as Jack attempts to wean Rose from her dependence on him. But the scenes that work best are in the middle third, when the two very different families attempt to co-habitate under one roof. Although Kathleen is well-meaning and sweet, Rose rebels against her presence in petulant and increasingly destructive ways, in a narrative progression that recalls Francoise Sagan's novella Bonjour Tristesse.
Miller certainly has fine dramaturgical genes and the film's second act scenes suggest her potential for growth as a writer. Indeed, the dynamics inside the earth house have the tense rigor of a well-written family drama, one that could be called Death of an Idealist. But the film's final act (and utterly gratuitous epilogue) doesn't have the power that it should. Reconciliation comes too easily, despite scenes that make tentative and rather wimpy excursions into the provocative sexual tensions between Daddy and his jealous little girl.
Given Miller's parentage, one can't help but be fascinated and perhaps unhealthily titillated by her film's struggle between a proud, stern and morally resolute father and the bright, inquisitive and devoted girl who walks in his shadow. In Personal Velocity too, the most compelling and authentically felt sequence was the one in which Parker Posey played a young aspiring editor acting out against her very powerful daddy.
Arthur Miller, paragon of liberal virtue that he may have been, was also supposed to have been a fearsome presence in his family, and growing up in the shadow of America's literary conscience must have been a rich but grueling experience for Rebecca Miller. (Notoriously, the author of All My Sons never visited or otherwise acknowledged Rebecca's institutionalized older brother, who was born with Down's syndrome, not even mentioning the boy's existence in his 1997 autobiography Timebends.) On the evidence of Personal Velocity and The Ballad of Jack and Rose, one surmises that Miller is exploring her unique patrimony in her films. For now, her loyalties still seem painfully divided between the need to honor her famous father and to follow her own artistic ambitions. For all of Rebecca Miller's real achievements, it seems that the father is still winning.