This quietly gripping Irish revenge drama has an austere beauty and power. Crisp photography and a Greek chorus score complement a spare script and committed performances to produce something special. Rose Plays Julie might be about rape and its damage, but directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor have created a film with its own elegant ambience: a small gem of ‘European cinema’.
When student vet Rose (Ann Skelly) decides to contact Ellen (Orla Brady), the birth mother who gave her up for adoption she eventually learns the truth about her conception. The two women become close, and while Ellen still cannot bring herself to say out loud the name of Rose’s father, her daughter is determined to confront him: “doesn’t it bother you that he’s out there, acting as if nothing happened?”
Rose puts on a wig and ‘plays Julie’ – her original birthname. She tracks down Peter (Aidan Gillen, adding another charming bastard to his rogues’ gallery CV), now a successful archaeologist and author, and volunteers for one of his digs, keen to further excavate her own past and find out what kind of man her father really is.
Skelly’s composed coolness is mirrored by the film’s interiors. Even when full of students Rose’s college lecture theatres, library and refectory are clinical and inert, coldly beautiful as compositions. The same goes for the outdoor scenes, such as the curious image of Ellen standing in the middle of a tennis court in a white bathrobe, the net down.
A sense of dread is created by a sparse score that becomes louder and more insistent as Rose’s passion is unleashed. Composer Stephen McKeon wrote the music as a Greek chorus, as if the gods are watching on, murmuring and chanting their disapproval. At other times we hear a repeated refrain that sounds like the first few notes from the original Star Trek. Was this intentional, as if to herald Rose’s journey into the unknown?
The film builds to an extraordinary showdown, one which is as compelling as any Mexican standoff yet is confined to the inside of a car. If you’re expecting Hollywood pyrotechnics, you’ll be disappointed, but the ending feels satisfying and psychologically true.
In an online Q & A session for the 2020 Amplify film festival director Molloy explained that they wanted to explore a female-focussed story: “we’re interested in belonging, how we define ourselves … our changing identities, the masks we wear. We wanted to take out the clutter around rape stories (did he do it? etc..) so we could focus on it.”
Actress Orla Brady praised the truth of the script: “everyone’s striving to create strong female characters but sometimes they’re shouting and strident. What I loved about this film was that these people did have their strengths and their huge vulnerabilities.”
Joe Lawlor said that Rose Plays Julie was deliberately provocative, challenging the audience to think of what they might do in a similar situation. It was “not social realism or a highly poetic film … more a European form of vision.”