Rose Plays Julie arrives on screens an entire year late. I have an email from January 2020 telling me it would be out in “Spring 2020”, but here we are in Spring 2021, after a year of slippage. Presumably directors Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy were waiting for the cinemas to re-open and eventually gave up.
I’m glad they did. This is a brilliant film, and while it probably would suit the claustrophobic murk of a big theatre, the confines of a living room don’t do it too much harm. “These are operatic film makers in search of a bigger better subject,” is what I wrote in my notes for Mister John, the last Lawlor/Molloy film I watched. Rose Plays Julie is that film, though it shares with Mister John (and Helen, the feature before that) two concerns – the flakiness of men and the idea of one person standing in for another.
Helen (2008) was about a woman who’d been brought in to help recreate a crime scene increasingly identifying with the victim she was playing. In Mister John (2013), the brother of a dead guy who owned a sex bar in Thailand takes over the bar and, increasingly, his brother’s life. Rose Plays Julie is about a young veterinary student called Rose, who is tracking down the woman who gave her away for adoption, when she was originally called Julie.
This is no celebration of biological inevitability leading to a touching reunion, as a lot of these sort of dramas are. Rose is a wistful, breathy creature. She seems fragile. She might be broken. She might be dangerous. That very Irish face – Ann Skelly has the bones, lips and round forehead of the Corrs – can be both open and calm, closed and threatening, something Skelly has got down to a T.
The mother she has located, Ellen (Orla Brady), is an actress, and she is on to Rose from the very first phone call, though Rose does not declare herself, which seems odd. And when Rose heads off to Ellen’s house, posing as a prospective buyer, introducing herself to Ellen’s (other) daughter as well as to Ellen, she seems to have crossed a Rubicon, of genre as much as personal commitment to her own fake story.
This whole sequence is nail-biting stuff, but Lawlor and Molloy have other tricks up their sleeve, repeatedly pre-loading scenarios – she’s a stalker? – only to upend them. They switch from melodrama to drama and back repeatedly, as if to shout “Ha! Fooled you!” at the audience. It’s riveting.
It is a plot-driven film and I will say no more about it, except that Ellen explains herself to Rose in a way that seems entirely acceptable, and that Rose then switches her attention to the man (played by Aidan Gillen, star of Mister John) who inseminated Ellen all those years before, by posing as a volunteer on the archaeological dig he’s leading, telling him she’s an actress researching a role for a play called The Archaeologist and that her name is Julie. All of this is at least partly true.
One other detail, introduced at the very beginning: as part of her studies Rose is learning about how to euthanise animals. I’ve said enough.
The writing is brilliantly economical. There are two massive emotional pivots, each happening in the space of a couple of sentences of maybe three/four words. The film’s style is innovative almost to the point of parody – the camera will suddenly flinch away from the subject to take in a building’s architectural details, operatic music suddenly appears on the soundtrack, set pieces (the house, a film set, the dig) are picked up and put down, cutaway moments of fantasy are woven into what is in most respects a highly realistic drama.
The influence of Scandi-noir’s dark and often dysfunctional familial dramas looms large, with the whack family and sexual dynamics of the Swedish film She-Monkeys (Apflickorna), also about powerful but possibly disturbed young women, in the mix there somewhere.
We do not meet the adoptive parents – the claims of blood (in every sense) are strong in Rose Plays Julie, a high drama conducted with an almost chilling calm. I don’t think there’s a raised voice throughout.
Rose Plays Julie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021