Guilt and anger permeate Rose Plays Julie, a harrowing Irish drama that feels more like a horror film at times. Suspenseful and captivating, its themes and craftsmanship dabble with terrible darkness to deliver compelling visuals and messages. It can be utterly nerve-wrecking, but there is an unmistakable empathy to its storytelling.
Ann Skelly plays a veterinarian student named Rose. She has been holding on to a phone number for seemingly some time – the number of her biological mother, Ellen Wise (Orla Brady). Ellen gave Rose up for adoption at her birth, only Rose was known as Julie back then. After mustering up some courage, Rose finally contacts Ellen and reveals their shared blood. But Ellen wants nothing to do with her child, and, as Rose comes to discover, that is due to the nature of Rose’s conception.
Behind the veil of bleakness that personifies much of the film’s story and filmmaking choices, are burning questions on belonging and identity. Rose Plays Julie is a clever title, not only for its reference to decisions Rose ends up making, but also for getting to the heart of its character study. Rose has gone on to have a decent life with her adopted family, but knowing that her birth mother gave her away has created a chasm inside her that she wishes to traverse. She opens the film by imagining herself as someone different, only for the plot’s increasingly dark revelations to have her concept of self virtually obliterated.
The work of directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor and their team compliment this feeling brilliantly. Their slow burn direction coupled with the drawn out editing and use of music create a dreamlike feel to the film’s atmosphere, one that only grows in eeriness as the answers Rose has spent years dreaming of are revealed to be something straight out of a nightmare. Even Ellen’s career as a successful actress feels like an endeavour to erase memories, or the identity she had when with Rose, in exchange for comfortable fantasies. The hypnotic visuals, made up of long takes and a muted colour palette, as well as dread woven sound mixing elevate the film’s heightened sense of realism as the characters’ deepest desires of belonging or repression crumble around them.
Further sources of fascination within Rose Plays Julie are its questions on ethics. The film has a consistently claustrophobic feel, but its gripping chilliness kicks into overdrive when Rose starts to search for Aiden Gillen’s character, an actor who I’d argue is unparalleled in his ability to play evil slyness. Euthansia is a topic omni-present throughout the story, beginning with an opening university lesson on the very subject. Rose cries at the putting down of a dog, yet when the film enters the thematic realms of vengeance and justice with the appearance of Gillen, Rose begins to ponder euthansia’s usefulness. Her professor states that animals are euthanised for bad behaviour all the time. Are her reasons any different? Are they perhaps more just in fact given the context? They are thought-provoking questions with no easy answers.
It’s a disturbing film with a riveting narrative that leaves you guessing. Yet where Rose Plays Julie truly shines is in its humanity. Films like Fincher’s Se7en thrive as they use terrifying stories to share optimistic messages. Rose Plays Julie employs similar strategies, by grounding its themes and plot with a poignant mother daughter story at its heart. The mother daughter relationship is one I feel is underrepresented in cinema, yet this film examines it with a delicate eye. Both of these women are united by trauma, and it is through empathy and understanding that the two begin to go from people tainted by the past to women who seize their identities for themselves, finding belonging in each other.
This is a brilliant film that’s rooted in feminism, as well as atmosphere and humanity. It is by no means an easy watch, be it from its deliberate slowness at times or its broadly dark subject matters. But between its bleak lines are touching sentiments on family, companionship and hidden strength. Add on some spine chilling direction from its dual directions, and two phenomenal performances in Brady and Skelly, and you have a film with heart, nuance and insight, as well as disturbing richness.
Rose Plays Julie played at 2019’s London Film Festival, where it quickly became one of my favourites, which is an impressive feat seeing as that festival also included Knives Out, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Lighthouse among many others. Two years and one pandemic that isn’t even over yet later and the film finally gets the release that it deserves. Movies with this level of chilling craft and suspense are a rarity, and I cannot recommend this one enough.
Rose Plays Julie is in cinemas September 17th.
Directors: Joe Lawlor & Christine Molloy
Writers: Christine Molloy & Joe Lawlor
Stars: Ann Skelly, Orla Brady, Aiden Gillen