Stark, meditative and bracingly uncompromising, Rose Plays Julie is the bold third feature from writer/director duo Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, collectively known as Dangerous Optimists, following Helen (2008) and Mister John (2013). The film explores similar themes to those previous works — identity, guilt, grief and revenge — yet marks a step up in terms of narrative definition and cinematic scope. Layering its fairly straightforward story of an adopted Irish girl who tracks down her birth mother with immersive visual and aural motifs, it plays more like modern operatic tragedy than run-of-the-mill social drama.
At its core, and undoubtedly a large contributor to the film’s overall success, are two striking performances from Ann Skelly (TV’s Vikings) and Orla Brady (TV’s Into The Badlands) as the estranged mother and daughter who, despite their distance, find they have a great deal in common. Both are searching for something essential; Rose (Skelly) for a sense of self and Ella (Brady), less consciously at first but rather more viscerally as the film progresses, for closure.
For reclusive veterinary student Rose, a course on animal euthanasia — which no doubt stirs up feelings about the death of her beloved adoptive mother two years before — proves both the catalyst for making contact with Ella. Now a successful TV actress living in England, Ella is initially reluctant to forge any relationship with Rose, for reasons that will become devastatingly clear. Yet she is drawn instinctively to her daughter, and is soon opening up about a past she would rather forget.
And so Rose learns that her father, Peter (a darkly charismatic Aiden Gillan) is a famous archaeologist, and that the circumstances of her conception were violent; essentially, that she is the constant reminder of a trauma too big for her mother to bear. Determined to achieve some justice, for Ella as well as herself, Rose disguises herself as ‘Julie’ — the name Ella gave to her as a baby — and, donning a severe wig, inserts herself into Peter’s life without revealing her true identity.
Events then begin to take on an increasingly dark turn and, as the film moves from drama into surrealist revenge fantasy territory, and dramatic contrivances come into play, confident direction from Lawlor and Malloy keeps everything grounded in truth. This is highlighted by a remarkably controlled dialogue-driven scene in which Ella finally has the chance to voice her pain, and exorcise her ghosts. And while the film’s visual metaphors may sometimes be heavy-handed, the film’s dreamlike, hallucinatory tone serves to keep the film becoming bogged down in allegory.
Craft is crucial in this regard. Strong work from DoP Tom Comerford plays into ideas of loss, illusion and a sense of life slipping from its moorings. In effective contract to the psychological tumult of the story, camera movements are deliberately languid, shots long-held and framing contemplative. Pivotal scenes, including the wind-swept coastal sequences which bookends the film, are exquisitely composed.
The use of sound is equally as important. Stephen McKeon’s score combines swelling classical chords and rumbling, guttural bass, which grow in intensity before abruptly cutting to everyday noise, or silence. These turn seemingly mundane shots into moments wrought with tension.
This review was originally published in ScreenDaily on October 4, 2019, when Rose Plays Julie premiered at London Film Festival.