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In today’s mainstream movies, love usually isn’t very strange. Indeed, it’s more likely to be perfunctory than anything else. This week, however, brings two intriguing love stories whose very premises will give some potential viewers the willies. Marriage- and subdivision-bound happily-ever-afters are not options for the couples at the centers of Walk on Water and The Ballad of Jack and Rose: The former observes a straight hawk and a gay dove as they build an unlikely partnership; the latter charts the end of an intense affair—no, not that kind—between a father and his daughter.
The sort of film that tends to confound the United States’ mostly antipolitical movie reviewers, Walk on Water teases the viewer by starting as a spy thriller, only to turn into something contentious and didactic. The movie does stumble more than once: Elements of the plot are implausible, the image that provides the title is silly, and both the climax and the epilogue are shamelessly glib. For Israeli peacenik propaganda, though, the film is remarkably clever, complex, and satisfying. Director Eytan Fox and writer Gal Uchovsky have composed an illustrated lecture that encompasses both political drama and dramatic politics.
The misleading prologue is set in Istanbul, where cold-blooded Mossad assassin Eyal (Late Marriage’s Lior Ashkenazi) brings down his target while the victim’s wife and child watch. Back in Israel, Eyal doesn’t get to enjoy his success for long: He goes home to find that his wife has committed suicide and returns to the office to learn that he won’t get a new assignment unless he agrees to therapy. Clearly not the kind of guy who can abide talking about his feelings, Eyal agrees instead to an off-the-books mission. His boss, Menachem (Gideon Shemer), has a personal grudge against an elusive elderly Nazi, Alfred Himmelman (Ernest Lenart), and he wants Eyal to find and kill the man before his imminent death from natural causes.
The search begins with an unlikely gig for Eyal: posing as a tour guide for Himmelman’s grandson Axel (Knut Berger). The young German, who doesn’t even know his grandfather is still alive, is coming to Israel to visit his hippie sister, Pia (Carolina Peters); she moved to Israel with a Jewish boyfriend and found kibbutz life so appealing that she stayed even after the relationship ended. As they tour biblical sites, speaking mostly English, the two men quickly reveal their differences. Eyal is a clannish defender of his people, Axel an internationalist who works with refugee kids and thinks that Palestinian suicide bombers must have their reasons. Eyal likes Springsteen; Axel prefers opera and cabaret.
It won’t surprise anyone familiar with Fox’s previous film, the young-soldiers-in-love drama Yossi & Jagger, to learn that Axel is gay. That doesn’t occur to Eyal, however, even after he and Axel have a long (and nude) discussion about which nationalities are most likely to be circumcised. The Mossad agent finally gets it when Axel takes him and Pia to a gay disco, and Eyal’s discomfort turns to indignation when he learns that the guy Axel has picked up is Palestinian. Eyal’s rage boils over the next day in a market, where he intervenes in Axel’s purchase of a jacket from a Palestinian shopkeeper, pretending to protect the German from being cheated when his real interest is putting the merchant in his place.
When they part at the airport, Axel invites Eyal to visit him in Berlin, and the Israeli replies that he’ll never go to Germany. Of course, Menachem immediately details Eyal to Berlin, where Grandpa Alfred may be about to appear. Axel gives his guest a quick introduction to his newly reunited and redeveloped hometown, punctuated by events that entail moral quandaries. What side should the homophobic Eyal take, for example, when he witnesses flamboyant transvestites being attacked by neo-Nazi skinheads? By the time the story reaches its resolution, Eyal’s long-held assumptions are in turmoil and Axel is showing new facets of his character.
Filmed and edited with more efficiency than flair, Walk on Water is no stylistic showcase. It’s most notable for Uchovsky’s trenchant script, which keeps challenging the narrow code that guides Eyal—and, by implication, many of his countrymen. The two principal characters’ worldviews aren’t surprising, but the contrasts are myriad—Israeli vs. German, gay vs. straight, open vs. closed, vengeful vs. forgiving—and the circumstances that reveal them keep shifting intriguingly. The film’s interlocking dialectics wouldn’t work, of course, if Ashkenazi and Berger weren’t utterly convincing in their roles, and their characters are believable even when their actions seem contrived. This is one movie in which the drama is sometimes phony but the politics are always satisfyingly real.
Writer-director Rebecca Miller’s third feature—and the first to star husband Daniel Day-Lewis—is something of a mess, yet that doesn’t entirely work against it. The Ballad of Jack and Rose includes numerous moments that are either over- or underwritten, yet its emotional core seems true. There’s a sense of spiritual, if not literal, autobiography in this saga from the daughter of the late playwright Arthur Miller.
Much of the credit for the film’s verisimilitude goes to two remarkable performances: a skeletal Day-Lewis as Jack, a wealthy Scottish-born hippie, and a steely Camilla Belle as Rose, Jack’s pretty 16-year-old daughter and the only remaining member of his alternative society. (Mom fled when Rose was small.) Father and child live happily in what’s left of a windmill-powered commune on an island off the U.S. East Coast. Jack, a dropout from the engineering profession, has contrived a world of peace, safety, and relative comfort for Rose, and though most teenagers would be antsy to explore the larger world, she seems content in her isolation.
There are, however, two snakes in this Eden. (Three, actually, but leave the last one to the Symbolism Patrol.) The island’s wetlands are being covered with McMansions by an unctuous developer (Beau Bridges), who counters Jack’s shotgun-wielding protests with legal maneuvers that are more effective in the long run. And Jack is dying of a heart ailment—an eventuality that Rose has vowed to answer with her own death.
Dad is mostly smart, kind, and well-meaning, but like many fathers he’s also a bit tyrannical—a quality encouraged by his inherited fortune. He’s prone to taking abrupt emotional shortcuts, sometimes with checkbook in hand, as he does when he decides to create for Rose a family that will outlive him. He recklessly invites mainland casual-sex partner Kathleen (Catherine Keener) and her mismatched teenage sons (Paul Dano and Ryan McDonald) to move in. Rose, who wasn’t consulted about this “experiment,” is shocked. She responds with extreme—and potentially self-destructive—countermeasures, aiming for a resolution that will leave her both triumphant and bereft.
With Bob Dylan and various contemporaries on the soundtrack, and cinematographer Ellen Kuras rendering Jack and Rose’s everyday life in milky natural light, The Ballad of Jack and Rose is aptly titled: It’s an idyll from an enchanted past, even if that past is only the mid-’80s. Several concluding events, notably Jack’s philosophical epiphany in the developer’s kitchen and a kiss that carries the taste of incest, are unpersuasive. And the subsidiary characters—including one whose homosexuality could hardly come as less of a surprise—are merely functional, despite committed performances by Keener and the others (including Jena Malone and Jason Lee, in cameo). At the film’s core, however, is Day-Lewis and Belle’s rapport—and that’s never in question. The privileged moments that Jack and Rose spend in opposition to the whole wide world are tender, moving, and entirely believable.CP