The opening moments are calm and introspective, but there’s something equally brooding and eerily unsettling about the start of Rose Plays Julie, the latest from Irish writer/directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor. And it’s that sense of foreboding that gradually rises to the surface in a story about a search identity and the haunting effects of the past.
Rose (Ann Skelly) is recovering from the death of her mother, but an older revelation haunts her even more. The fact that she was adopted. Undeterred by the discovery that her birth mother hadn’t wanted any contact with her, she eventually tracks down actress Ellen (Orla Brady). Finding out more about her parentage leads her to meet her biological father, Peter (Aiden Gillen) but also resurrects painful memories, insecurities and, even more dramatically, a powerful sense of revenge.
It’s a story that takes its time, a deceptively simple revenge plot with overtones of classical drama yet, at the same time, a distinctly contemporary feel, one that chimes very much with the #metoo era. And it poses numerous questions – “Do you ever think about me?” is right at the start – although we have to wait for the one at the heart of the narrative. “Who are you?” is brief but laden with as much meaning as the entire film. In a multi-layered narrative that moulds together such themes as digging into the past (the pun is intentional), violation and invasion, the gulf between appearance and the truth and a sense of belonging, we accompany Rose’s personal journey, one that starts as a comparatively simple search for the truth but deepens into something with distinctly gothic overtones. It borders on horror with its hints of instability, but is more of a psychological chiller, one with a spartan approach that leaves us to answer its many questions for ourselves.
The dialogue is minimal, often replaced with a silence that speaks far louder or an operatic style score to heighten the suspense. Most enigmatic of all is Rose herself, as played by an impassive Ann Skelly. Her almost unreadable face is a gift to Tom Comerford’s searching cinematography with its lingering close-ups, making for a magnetic performance. Orla Brady is impressive as her natural mother, trying to cope with both her memories and present day encounters she’s tried to avoid for years. Completing the fractured triangle of relationships is Aiden Gillen as the biological father – disquieting to the point of creepy, threatening to the point of hatred yet still, among all that, provoking a sense of reluctant pity.
Rose Plays Julie slowly and steadily unfurls its shocks and that sense of discomfort never goes away. The sense of inevitability hanging over the narrative never makes it feel predictable and perhaps the biggest surprise is that the ending delivers a sense of satisfaction. Even if you may not want to admit it to yourself at the time.
Drama | Cert: 15 | New Wave Films | Cinemas, 17 September 2021 | Dirs. Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor | Ann Skelly, Orla Brady, Aiden Gillen.